June 10, 2013

WASHINGTON – The fetal nervous system and brain structures that communicate pain are already in place by the 18th week of gestation, a neurobiologist told a congressional hearing May 23.

"There is universal agreement that pain is detected by the fetus in the first trimester," although it is not known if that pain is experienced in quite the same way as it is in adults, said Maureen Condic.

Condic also said unborn babies are anesthetized when undergoing fetal surgery because, she explained, doctors have observed fetuses do experience pain.

Condic, an associate professor of neurobiology and adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine, was one of several witnesses testifying at the hearing.

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, with several co-sponsors, has introduced the Pain Capable Unborn Protection Act to prohibit abortion nationwide after 20 weeks of gestation, approximately the stage at which scientists say unborn babies are capable of feeling pain.

Franks recently reintroduced a measure that would outlaw abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks, and he and a number of other members of Congress want to amend it to make it nationwide. Congress has legislative jurisdiction over the district.

At the hearing, witnesses included opponents of Franks' bill who said evidence of fetal pain is unfounded and argued that a woman should be able to choose to have an abortion at any stage of pregnancy, especially in cases of fetal deformities.