The idea that a fetus can feel pain is not supported by evidence according to a new clinical review published in the British Medical Journal.

In a paper which assesses current psychological and biological research on fetal pain, Dr Stuart Derbyshire from the University of Birmingham, School of Psychology argues that although fetuses are capable of producing a biological response to a pain stimulus, this does not mean they feel pain.

The paper concludes that the basic physical mechanisms we need to feel pain develop in a fetus from about the 26th week of pregnancy. Peripheral free nerve endings, which act as sensors for pain, reach full maturity between 23 and 25 weeks, and form a complete link with the thalamus and cortex by about 26 weeks. Around the same stage the thalamus and cortex develop important features of maturity.

The article argues that this biological response to a noxious or potentially dangerous stimulus, which is produced by almost all animals, is not sufficient for the experience of pain.

Dr Derbyshire explains: “Experiencing pain is more than simply producing a biological response to a stimulus. It is something that comes from our experiences and develops due to stimulation and human interaction. Pain involves concepts such as location, feelings of unpleasantness and having the sensation of pain. Pain becomes possible because of a psychological development that begins at birth when the baby is separated from the protected atmosphere of the womb and is stimulated into wakeful activity.”

In the United States there have been a number of legal challenges to try to force all doctors to provide pain killing injections to a fetus before an abortion is carried out.

Dr Derbyshire continues:

“The issue of fetal pain has become central to the ongoing battles about abortion in the US.  However, the absence of fetal pain does not resolve the morality of abortion, but it does provide a strong argument against legal efforts to provide pain killing injections for the fetus during the procedure.”

The paper: “Can fetuses feel pain” – is published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Volume 332).


For more information contact: Ben Hill, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, 0121 4145134, 07789 921 163


Dr Stuart Derbyshire

Stuart Derbyshire completed his Ph.D. at the University of London in 1995. His research thesis was one of the first to apply new brain imaging techniques to the study of pain. From London he moved to Manchester and then to the University of Pittsburgh where he was a research fellow from 1996-1998. His fellowship involved using positron emission tomography (PET) to investigate non-specific low back pain.

After the fellowship, Stuart moved to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) as an Assistant Professor. At UCLA he continued to use PET to investigate irritable bowel syndrome before returning to Pittsburgh in 2000. At the MR Research Center in Pittsburgh, Stuart began new studies using fMRI to investigate hypnotic modulation of pain in control subjects and patients with fibromyalgia. He returned to the UK last summer as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Stuart arrived to help the Psychology School set up a new fMRI centre - the Birmingham University Imaging Centre - which was officially opened at the beginning of March. Stuart has written widely on the topic of pain including articles addressing hypnotically induced pain, fetal pain and the nature of functional pain.

The University of Birmingham School of Psychology:

The School is one of the largest and most active psychology departments in Britain, with an excellent reputation for teaching and research. It achieved a grade of 5* in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

The School's student population consists of about 450 undergraduates on BSc single honours and two joint honours courses: there are about 70 postgraduates who are engaged in PhD research, 75 taking professional training on courses in Clinical Psychology and 50 in Forensic Psychology.