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Do babies feel pain in the first trimester? New study shows incredible nerve development

19 April 2017


That the nervous system develops sooner than thought could have implications for whether babies feel pain in the early weeks. Image: Just The Facts.

Although there's no logical reason why a human lack of capacity to feel pain justifies ending the life of an unborn baby, it's a common argument for why abortion is acceptable in the early stages of pregnancy. However, the prevailing wisdom that babies don't feel pain in the first trimester may have to be re-examined, as Live Action reports.

Adult-like nerves

A study published in the Journal Cell on 23 March 2017 reveals that the nervous system of embryos and foetuses may be greatly more developed than was previously believed.  Entitled "Tridimensional Visualization and Analysis of Early Human Development" the study shows that unborn babies in the first trimester have "adult-like" patterns of nerves. Researchers "combined whole-mount immunostaining, 3DISCO clearing, and light-sheet imaging to start building a 3D cellular map" and found that "the adult-like pattern of skin innervation is established before the end of the first trimester, showing important intra- and inter-individual variations in nerve branches."

It's too early to conclude that the system of nerves observed in embryos and fetuses would allow the infant in development to feel pain. However, this new research shows that the nervous system develops much sooner than had previously been thought, which could point to pain sensitivity. 

What evidence is there for foetal pain?

For now, it's almost conclusively provable that preborn babies can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation, although they respond to touch as early as eight weeks. There is also increasing evidence that unborn babies can feel pain much earlier than 20 weeks — possibly as early as five weeks. Some evidence exists to show that foetal pain may be even worse in the first trimester, due to the uneven maturation of foetal neurophysiology.

News in brief:

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Comments (1)
  • Pat

    20 April 2017, 11:33am

    We know that the body will produce certain chemicals in response to pain. Although the 6 week embryo is very tiny, I wonder if it would be possible to detect these chemicals and see that the baby that young can feel pain. Until the baby's limbs have developed some, the baby won't be able to move away from pain, but we know that at 6 weeks LMP, the fingers are already visible. That baby can swim around in the amniotic sac.

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