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Unborn babies CAN feel pain, say scientists, prompting calls for abortion time limit to be reviewed

20 January 2020

Unborn babies can feel pain, possibly as early as 13 weeks, according to an article in the influential Journal of Medical Ethics.

It has prompted calls from pro-life campaigners for the UK’s 24-week time limit for abortion to be reviewed.

Currently, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists come up with official guidelines for abortion clinics on pain experienced by babies during an abortion.

They rely on a 2010 review they undertook into foetal awareness. They claim that the unborn baby is in an unconscious state and does not reach consciousness until birth.

But this assumption has now been called into question.

Two medical researchers, including a ‘pro-choice’ British pain expert who previously believed there was no chance the baby could feel pain that early, now say recent studies strongly suggest that previous idea is wrong.

In their article they argue that women thinking about an abortion at that stage of pregnancy should be told about the pain their baby could experience while being aborted. Medical staff should also ask if the woman wants the baby to receive pain relief.

Given the new evidence, to carry on without making changes to official guidance ‘flirts with moral recklessness’.

At the moment, the use of pain relief during an abortion for the baby is not required by law or even advised in official guidelines.

It is however standard NHS practice to give pain killers to unborn babies receiving surgery in the womb for spinal bifida.

Calls are now being made for Parliament to consider the UK’s 24-week time limit. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce said: “Given developing views and research on foetal pain, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' guidance on this issue in relation to abortion – which is now nearly ten years old – should be reviewed.’

Cross Bench Peer, Lord Alton said: “This new evidence adds further pressure on Parliament to urgently review our current abortion time limit. We last had a proper debate on time limits in 2008.”

The lead author of the article is British Professor Stuart Derbyshire. He has acted as a consultant to Planned Parenthood, the US’ largest abortion provider.

In 2006, he wrote in the British Medical Journal that not talking to women about the pain experienced by pre-born babies was “sound policy based on good evidence that foetuses cannot experience pain”.

He now says that based on recent studies, “it is not clear that the consensus is no longer tenable.”

CARE’s Communications Manager, James Mildred backed the calls for a review of the current 24-week time limit:

“Faced with new evidence which suggests babies do feel pain during an abortion possibly as early as 12-13 weeks, it would be immoral to do nothing.

“As a nation we care a lot about animal cruelty but have this persistent blind spot when it comes to unborn babies.

“The UK already has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. Most European countries have a 12 week limit, yet ours is double that and up to birth in cases of disability.

“Parliament should have the courage to review the new evidence and open up a genuine and informed discussion on changing the existing time limit.”



In any pregnancy, both the woman and preborn baby have inherent value and dignity, by virtue of being made in the image of God. CARE is passionately pro-woman and pro-life.

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