A review of evidence for and against foetal sentience concludes that doctors must "err on the side of caution," and protect a foetus from potentially painful procedures at the earliest stages of development.
This would include abortion and raises the possibility of painkillers being administered specifically for the foetus, especially during late abortions.
The report, which recommends that all pregnant women are told of the most up-to-date scientific data on foetal sentience and calls for new laws to protect the unborn child, was immediately attacked by pro-choice groups as being fundamentally anti-abortion and designed to make women considering a termination feel guilty. However, its findings have been described as "generally well balanced" by New Scientist magazine. which was given an advance copy to review.
The Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience which published its report yesterday, was set up by Care, a Christian education charity, in response to growing public concern about the capability of the foetus to experience pain or suffering. It took evidence from internationally renowned scientists, neurologists, and doctors and reviewed more than 70 scientific papers and reports.
Its main finding is that while it is not possible to say exactly when a foetus may feel pain, there are sensory receptors present over almost all its body surface by 14 weeks' gestation, and all the structures necessary for the perception of pain are in place by 26 weeks. The Commission says that some experts say the ability to feel pain may occur from 13 weeks while others say a foetus may feel pain from as early as six weeks.
Kypros Nicolaides, Professor of Foetal Medicine at King's College Hospital, London, and the doctor who cared for Mandy Allwood who was pregnant with eight babies, told the Commission that because of uncertainty the foetus should be treated as if it felt pain from the first trimester of pregnancy.
Dr John Wyatt, a consultant paediatrician at University College London Hospitals, and a member of the Commission, said that there had been a "conspiracy of silence" over the issue of foetal sentience because scientists were concerned that their views would be misused by pro- and anti-abortionists.
Dr Wyatt said it was the duty of scientists to emphasise what they did not know and the duty of doctors to err on the side of caution. "This kind of paranoia and impugning of the motives of people who want to ask honest questions must stop."
Newborn babies were, until a decade ago, believed incapable of feeling pain and were subjected to painful medical interventions without analgesia. Following evidence that neonates experienced a surge of stress hormones indicative of pain during these procedures, doctors now routinely use painkillers.
Dr Wyatt said foetal surgery, such as intrauterine transfusions, draining of blocked kidneys and removal of fluid on the brain, were currently carried out without analgesia, although there was evidence that the foetus suffered stress. The Care report follows the all-party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group which concluded that a human foetus experiences pain from the 10th week of its existence.
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