The XX Factor

Study Shows No Fetal Pain Before 24 Weeks

Unsurprising but still important news: More research has been done on the subject of fetal pain, and the findings reaffirm what previous research has discovered , which is that fetuses don’t feel pain until very late in the pregnancy. The very earliest possible moment is 24 weeks, and proably later, in fact, because there’s simply not enough nerve development for pain to be possible. Politically, this story should be important, because recent attempts to get around Roe v. Wade have been built around around the argument that post-20-week abortions should be banned because fetuses feel pain.

Not that I think the scientific realities of abortion are going to do a thing to stop anti-choicers from pushing anti-scientific arguments about fetal pain in order to gain legislative victories. Anti-choice crusaders have never been fond of reality-based science, as evidenced by their enthusiasm for spreading misinformation-that abortion will give you breast cancer, that condoms don’t work , that the birth control pill works by killing embryos (it works by preventing ovulation)-so I don’t imagine they’ll start being cowed by reality now. Still, these facts will matter quite a bit in court challenges to laws restricting abortion based on the premise that fetuses younger than 24 weeks feel pain.

Outside of legal considerations, this news is good for the relatively few women getting abortions after 20 weeks ( 1.5 percent of abortions ). The rule of thumb is usually, “The later the abortion, the sadder the story for the woman getting it,” I’m afraid. Very few women wait until 20 weeks and decide not to have a baby all of a sudden. Mostly, we’re talking about birth defects, threats to the mother’s health, or a handful of women who were so broke that it took them this long to get the money together. In other words, women who have enough pain in their lives that we don’t need to pile on them with misinformation about fetal pain.