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Study: Unborn Babies Can Differentiate Touch, Pain in Womb

by Steven Ertelt | Washington, DC | LifeNews.com | 9/9/11 10:56 AM

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A new study from England finds unborn children have the capacity to differentiate touch from pain in the womb and they are able to do so as early as 28-35 weeks into pregnancy. Other studies have shown unborn children can experience pain much earlier.

Conducted by researchers at the University College London, the study found unborn children can feel pain around the 35th week of pregnancy. The scientists determine this by using EEG to record brain activity in response to pain and comparing the responses from a positive touch versus a painful prick in the foot.

“Babies can distinguish painful stimuli as different from general touch from around 35 to 37 weeks gestation — just before an infant would normally be born,” Lorenzo Fabrizi, lead author of the study, told ABC News about the study published in the journal Current Biology.

The babies the researchers evaluated were between the ages of 28 and 35 weeks into pregnancy and they all showed the same increased levels of brain activities to both the touch and painful prick, but the study found babies at 35 weeks gestation have a greater brain activity level to the prick than the touch.

Dr. David Prentice, a former biology professor at Indiana State University who is now a fellow with the Family Research Council, told LifeNews that fetal pain is not a new concept and that it is measured much earlier than this study suggests. He also cautions about the interpretation of the study, pointing out that an ABC News report saying “Babies Feel Pain at 35 to 37 Weeks of Development, Experts Say” is “inaccurate and misleading.”

“It’s important for people to understand that the study suggests unborn babies can differentiate touch from pain at 35 weeks,” Prentice said. “But numerous studies document that unborn babies can certainly feel pain well before this point in their life.

In fact, abortion backers are already using the study to try to make it appear that fetal pain does not develop until late in pregnancy.

Dr. F. Sessions Cole, director of the division of newborn medicine at Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis, told ABC, “The findings … should help inform the pain perception portion of the abortion debate. Although this study specifically addresses brain wave differences between premature and term infants, not fetuses, after [receiving] painful and tactile stimuli, it suggests that brain maturation required for fetal pain perception occurs in late pregnancy, more than 11 weeks after the legal limit for abortion in the United States.”

And the pro-abortion blog Jezebel responded to the story with a post titled, “Another Study Suggests ‘Fetal Pain’ Laws Are Totally Bogus.”

But lead author Dr. Lorenzo Fabrizi said: “Of course, babies cannot tell us how they feel, so it is impossible to know what babies actually experience. We cannot say that before this change in brain activity they don’t feel pain.”

Meanwhile, Mary Spaulding Balch, a pro-life attorney with the National Right to Life Committee who is the main drafter of the fetal pain bills that have passed in several states, told LifeNews that the study is no refutation of other research behind that legislation.

“This study focuses on the maturation of the cerebral cortex’s differentiation of touch from pain,” Balch said. “It does not address the substantial medical evidence, that in the brain it is the thalamus, rather than the cerebral cortex, that is principally responsible for pain perception. While the cerebral cortex may affect reaction to and modulation of perceived pain, children born missing most of the cerebral cortex, those with hydranancephaly, nevertheless experience pain – and  in  adults, stimulation or ablation of the cerebral cortex does not alter pain perception, while stimulation or ablation of the thalamus does.”

“One noteworthy finding in the study, however, is that it found no difference in perception or neural reaction to pain based on whether the infant was awake or asleep,” Balch noted. “This calls into question one of the central claims of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology’s Working Group, that unborn children are in a sleep-like state that, the Group argued, prevented them from feeling pain.”

The science behind the concept of fetal pain is fully established and Dr. Steven Zielinski, an internal medicine physician from Oregon, is one of the leading researchers into it. He first published reports in the 1980s to validate research showing evidence for it.

He has testified before Congress that an unborn child could feel pain at “eight-and-a-half weeks and possibly earlier” and that a baby before birth “under the right circumstances, is capable of crying.”

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He and his colleagues Dr. Vincent J. Collins and Thomas J. Marzen  were the top researchers to point to fetal pain decades ago. Collins, before his death, was Professor of Anesthesiology at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois and author of Principles of Anesthesiology, one of the leading medical texts on the control of pain.

“The functioning neurological structures necessary to suffer pain are developed early in a child’s development in the womb,” they wrote.

“Functioning neurological structures necessary for pain sensation are in place as early as 8 weeks, but certainly by 13 1/2 weeks of gestation. Sensory nerves, including nociceptors, reach the skin of the fetus before the 9th week of gestation. The first detectable brain activity occurs in the thalamus between the 8th and 10th weeks. The movement of electrical impulses through the neural fibers and spinal column takes place between 8 and 9 weeks gestation. By 13 1/2 weeks, the entire sensory nervous system functions as a whole in all parts of the body,” they continued.

With Zielinski and his colleagues the first to provide the scientific basis for the concept of fetal pain, Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand of the University of Arkansas Medical Center has provided further research to substantiate their work.

He has said he and other specialists in development of unborn children have shown that babies feel pain before birth as early as 20 weeks into the pregnancy. Anand said many medical studies conclude that unborn babies are “very likely” to be “extremely sensitive to pain during the gestation of 20 to 30 weeks.”

“This is based on multiple lines of evidence,” Dr. Anand said. “Not just the lack of descending inhibitory fibers, but also the number of receptors in the skin, the level of expression of various chemicals, neurotransmitters, receptors, and things like that.”

Anand explained that later-term abortion procedures, such as a partial-birth abortion “would be likely to cause severe pain.”

Other scientists join them in validating fetal pain.

“The neural pathways are present for pain to be experienced quite early by unborn babies,” explains Steven Calvin, M.D., perinatologist, chair of the Program in Human Rights Medicine, University of Minnesota, where he teaches obstetrics.

Dr. Jean Wright, an anesthesiologist specializing in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine, has also confirmed the existence of fetal pain during Congressional testimony.

“[A]n unborn fetus after 20 weeks of gestation, has all the prerequisite anatomy, physiology, hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical current to close the loop and create the conditions needed to perceive pain. In a fashion similar to explaining the electrical wiring to a new house, we would explain that the circuit is complete from skin to brain and back,” she said.

And Dr. Richard T.F. Schmidt, past President of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, confirms, “It can be clearly demonstrated that fetuses seek to evade certain stimuli in a manner which an infant or an adult would be interpreted as a reaction to pain.”

Meanwhile, a British study published in April 2006 also confirms the fetal pain. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience by a team from University College London, the study analyzed brain scans taken on premature babies when blood was being drawn from them.

The results found that babies as young as 24 weeks after pregnancy can feel pain and the researchers hope the study will prompt new pain treatment methods.