NRL News

The pain may be worse for unborn babies aborted at 20 weeks

by | Jul 10, 2013

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education and Research

FetalPain091604aDefenders of late abortions try to argue that the unborn child at twenty weeks is not capable of feeling pain, claiming the connections in the fetal brain are not fully formed. Those who know something about fetal pain physiology, however, have solid medical evidence to believe that the child not only feels pain, but feels it more severely than an infant or an adult.

As you will read below, this is because this is a “uniquely vulnerable time, since the pain system is fully established, yet the higher level pain-modifying system has barely begun to develop,” according to Dr. Paul Ranalli, a neurologist from the University of Toronto.

At twenty weeks, the child has all the parts in place – the pain receptors, spinal cord, nerve tracts, and thalamus – needed for transmitting and feeling pain.

The unborn child responds to touch as early as week six, and by week eighteen, pain receptors have appeared throughout the child’s body. (We will be expressing fetal age in weeks, measuring the child’s age from the time of fertilization, rather than in what are sometimes called “weeks of pregnancy,” which is measured from a woman’s last menstrual period, or “LMP.” To translate post-fertilization age into the “weeks of pregnancy” system, add two weeks to the post-fertilization age.)

The thalamus which is the center of pain consciousness in the brain develops during weeks eight through sixteen, and the nerve tracts connecting the spinal cord and thalamus are themselves in place by week 20.

Like infants, the unborn child cannot speak and describe his or her pain experience, but there are the usual physiological indicators that indicate pain awareness.

As early as eighteen weeks, an unborn child injected with a needle releases stress hormones, just as adults do when experiencing pain. Hormone levels in those babies decrease when pain-relievers are supplied.

Studies indicate that anencephalic infants, whose cortex is severely reduced if not altogether absent, experience pain as long as other neurological structures are functioning.

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Studied in more detail, fetal pain physiology indicates not merely pain awareness, but the possibility of increased pain capability. Between weeks twenty and thirty, the unborn child has both a very thin protective layer of skin and more pain receptors per square inch than any other time before or after birth.

Furthermore, the pain suppressing mechanisms that infants and adults generally possess do not begin to develop until weeks thirty to thirty-two.

As a consequence, the child aborted at twenty to thirty weeks is likely to be not just capable of feeling pain, but feeling it more widely, and intensely, and unremittingly, than a child born at term or an adult.

Abortion is, by its very nature, a destructive act. As the limbs are torn off, the head crushed, the heartbeat is silenced by a lethal injection in these late abortions, scientific evidence points to it being an extremely painful experience for the unborn child.

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The citations for these claims can be found on NRLC’s factsheet, The Pain of the Unborn, here: References to more recent scholarly resources on fetal pain available at

Categories: fetal pain