Does an unborn baby feel pain? If so…when?

Does a baby in the womb feel pain?

In an abortion, can the unborn child feel the pain of being dismembered?

In May of 2013, Dr. Maureen Condic, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, testified before Congress when the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks gestation, was under consideration. She stated:

“There is universal agreement in the scientific community that an unborn child experiences fetal pain by at least 20 weeks old.”

Now, studies are showing that pain may be felt even earlier … and more intense than in adults.

But how do we know?

Here’s what the scientists say:


1. Pain receptors develop early.

In her testimony before Congress in May of 2012, Dr. Colleen Malloy, MD, a board certified Neonatologist and Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, described the following developmental milestones of an unborn child, indicating very early perception of pain:

  • At 8 weeks gestation, facial sensory receptors appear.
  • At 14 weeks gestation, sensory fibers grow into the spinal cord and connections are made with the thalamus (part of the brain).
  • Between 13 and 16 weeks gestation, monoamine fibers (nerve cells or fibers) reach the cerebral cortex (another part of the brain).
  • Between 17 and 20 weeks gestation, thalamo-cortical relays (pathways to the brain for sensory information) penetrate the cortex.
  • No later than 20 weeks gestation, pain receptors are present and linked.


2. Unborn babies “flinch, jerk, and recoil” from sharp objects.

From her professional experience, Dr. Malloy explains that new technologies, such as the 4D ultrasound, show vivid images of babies kicking and moving in utero. That being said, she attests that a baby at just 8 weeks gestation can be seen moving in response to stimuli. By 20 weeks gestation, the baby will respond to sound and move, wince, and recoil from sharp objects and incisions. For instance, when sampling blood from the liver, the baby in utero will move away from the needle. Dr. Malloy say’s,

“You can see it in real time. It’s like watching a movie.”


3. Stress hormones elevate like adults.

When we experience pain, stress hormones are released. Interestingly, the hormonal response to pain is identical among an unborn child, a premature baby, and an adult, according to Dr. Malloy. In fact, when a needle is used to draw blood from a baby at 18 weeks gestation, a stress hormone (B-endorphin) is released in massive amounts, increasing by 500 %. Cortisol, another stress hormone, rises by 183%. In addition, Substance P, a neurotransmitter involved in transmitting pain, is found at 11 weeks gestation, and at 13 weeks, Enkephalin, involved in perceiving pain, is also detected.


4. Higher concentrations of anesthesia are needed for unborn babies.

In a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, Dr. Kanwalkeet Anand, an anesthesiologist and leading expert in the field of fetal pain, wrote:

“It is my opinion that the human fetus possesses the ability to experience pain from 20 weeks of gestation, if not earlier, and the pain perceived by a fetus is possibly more intense than that perceived by term newborns or older children.”

How could this be?

According to Dr. Malloy, there is published data showing that a baby’s pain mitigation system does not develop until the latter part of pregnancy. This means, the child is “completely nerves.” Analogous to a burn patient, the baby is without pain protective barriers.

Pain transmitters in the spine are abundant during the first part of pregnancy, but pain inhibiting transmitters are sparse until later. In fact, when babies in utero undergoes surgery, their stress hormone response is 3 to 5 times higher than in adults.

And so, it makes sense why increased concentrations of anesthetic drugs would be required for premature infants than for adults.


Thanks to technology imaging and clinical neonatology, life inside the womb is becoming less and less of a mystery. We know a lot more about the rapid development babies in utero, and science is continuing to affirm their humanity – and fragility.

So does the unborn child feel the pain of being dismembered in an abortion?

Dr. Colleen Malloy attests:

“These are the patients that I perform procedures on every day, and I can guarantee you that when I put a chest tube in, or I intubate a patient, or put an IV in, they feel it.”