A review of medical evidence has found that fetuses likely don't feel pain until about the seventh month of pregnancy, a challenge to abortion opponents who hope that discussions about fetal pain will make women think twice about ending pregnancies.
Critics angrily disputed the findings by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.
"They have literally stuck their hands into a hornet's nest," said Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a fetal pain researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who believes fetuses as young as 20 weeks old feel pain. "This is going to inflame a lot of scientists who are very, very concerned and are far more knowledgeable in this area than the authors appear to be."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, also said the review is slanted.
The new study, appearing today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that offering pain relief to fetuses during abortions in the fifth or sixth months of pregnancy is misguided and might result in unacceptable health risks to women, reports The AP.
Dr. K.S. Anand, a pediatrician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said to The New York Times: "There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that pain occurs in the fetus." For example, he said, tiny premature babies, as young as 23 or 24 weeks, cry when their heels are stuck for blood tests and quickly become conditioned to cry whenever anyone comes near their feet.
"In the first trimester there is very likely no pain perception," Anand said. "By the second trimester, all bets are off and I would argue that in the absence of absolute proof we should give the fetus the benefit of the doubt if we are going to call ourselves compassionate and humane physicians."
Despite his view, Anand did not recommend trying to anesthetize fetuses during abortions. "It is premature at this point to say we should do this or not do it," he said. "As a scientist I'm not sure we have the best methods."
Anand said he did not oppose abortion, but, at hearings called by legislators seeking to ban late-term abortions, had testified that fetuses feel pain.