A large number of MPs have attended a Parliamentary webinar on fetal pain hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPPG) and chaired by Fiona Bruce MP. It aimed to raise awareness of the need to review the science behind fetal pain and address the current contradiction in UK law concerning the treatment of the unborn.
Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum heard John C Bockmann PA, a U.S. Army physician assistant and member of the Conner Troop Medical Clinic at Fort Drum, New York, and Dr Stuart WG Derbyshire, an Associate Professor in Psychology at the National University of Singapore, discuss the evidence that led them to conclude that the unborn may feel pain from as early as 12 weeks’ gestation.
They recently collaborated on the Journal of Medical Ethics article, Reconsidering Fetal Pain. Though they hold ‘divergent views regarding the morality of abortion’, they approach the issue of fetal pain based on recent scientific and medical developments.
“Good evidence” that the fetus can feel pain from 12 weeks’ gestation
Dr Derbyshire served on the 2010 Royal College of Gynaecologists working group, which concluded, that fetal pain relief for abortion was unnecessary at any gestation. Now, both he and John C Bockmann PA believe there is “good evidence” that the brain and nervous system, which start developing at 12 weeks’ gestation, are sufficient for the baby to feel pain. In their study, they argue that women considering abortion at this stage of pregnancy should be told about the pain their unborn baby could experience while being terminated.
Notably, in addition to their divergent moral views on abortion, in “Reconsidering Fetal Pain” Dr Derbyshire and Mr Bockmann hold to slightly ‘divergent’ views on what fetal pain should mean for clinical practice as well. One believes “The clinical team and the pregnant woman can consider whether fetal analgesia makes sense based on the clinical requirements for the abortion, the age of the fetus, and the conscience of the parties involved,” while the other concludes “Fetal analgesia and anaesthesia should thus be standard for abortions in the second trimester, especially after 18 weeks when there is good evidence for a functional connection from the periphery and into the brain.” Currently, the use of fetal pain relief in the UK is not required by law or advised in official NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) or RCOG (Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists) guidelines.
The webinar heard Dr Derbyshire explain the science suggesting why ‘fetal sleep’, one of the factors originally thought to rule out a fetus’ ability to feel pain, is no longer considered sufficient grounds on which to determine fetal pain. Dr Derbyshire reviewed various definitions of pain in his presentation, talking through developments in academic research on the age that the fetus becomes neurologically and psychologically mature enough to feel pain.
John Bockmann PA examined the evidence base for the 2010 RCOG Report on Fetal Awareness, upon which current UK abortion guidelines rely. He outlined that the guidelines are outdated and in urgent need of review. He went onto cover that the guidance, rather than presenting robust evidence on fetal pain, seems to depend on two small studies which themselves suggest correlation rather than causation .
The moral implications of fetal pain
Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, Fiona Bruce MP, commented that the evidence for fetal pain “highlights, we believe, the humanity of the unborn child and provides yet another important reason for legislation to be looked at again with regard to protection of the unborn child from abortion.” She further noted that “…It is all the more critical the unborn are not forgotten as every life is intrinsically valuable” and the “strange but true fact” that in the UK, “a dog fetus at seven weeks’ gestation has more protections in law than a human fetus about the way they can be put down.”
In response to the question posed by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP: “As legislators, how can we more effectively utilise the research on fetal sentience to help recapture the narrative on abortion from a pro-life perspective?”, Mr Bockmann stressed the “need to highlight the humanity of the fetus by whatever means are appropriate and this is certainly one of them. The ability to feel pain is visceral and undeniable to so many people” and noted “this is a good way for those who are not yet convinced.”
Fiona Bruce MP concluded, “The All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group very much believes it is important that we continue to educate ourselves and others on this important issue which is why we so value your expert contributions today. We do also hope, as you will see in our report, that we will see the current RCOG guidance on this issue updated. I very much believe that is something that we ought to – as a humane society – do.”
Women must provide fully informed consent for abortion
One mother who feels misinformed about the evidence for fetal pain claims she was not capable of giving her fully informed consent for an abortion, and that she would not have chosen abortion had she been provided this information.. Ana Maria Tudor, who had an abortion at a British Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic, told the Mail on Sunday earlier this year: “I did not find out a baby at 23 weeks might be able to feel pain until afterwards. It made me feel awful and I now deeply regret my decision.” She began legal proceedings this year.
Discrepancies in current UK law on fetal pain are being raised in Parliament
The speakers’ findings were the subject of a Parliamentary Report on foetal pain and sentience published earlier this year by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPPG), summarising the extensive medical and scientific research suggesting that babies in the womb feel pain. It highlighted the inconsistency in our law that the Government recently acknowledged that unborn babies undergoing surgery for spina bifida from 20 weeks gestation on the NHS receive pain relief – the same age at which some babies may be aborted by dismemberment without anaesthesia.
The APPPG report therefore called for a review of the current laws on feticide and pain, and of abortion time limits. Commenting on the changing consensus on fetal pain, Lord Alton of Liverpool stated: ‘This new evidence adds further pressure on Parliament to urgently review our current abortion time limit. We last had a proper debate on time limits in 2008.’
The report is highly critical of the current RCOG guidelines which permit abortion without analgesia at any gestation, and concludes that “The Review has highlighted significant areas of scientific, clinical and philosophical concern, and changes in clinical practice, which should lead the RCOG to review its 2010 guidance.”
Dr Derbyshire’s and John Bockmann’s arguments have also been raised more recently with the Government in a written question, where the Health Minister Helen Whatley MP responded: “The Department has brought the article by Dr Stuart W G Derbyshire and John C Bockmann to the attention of the RCOG. It is for the RCOG to consider whether to revise the guidelines, having looked at the available evidence.”
A spokesperson for Right To Life UK Catherine Robinson said:
“As Dr Derbyshire and Mr Bockmann PA shared with many of our politicians, there is growing scientific evidence suggesting that babies in utero can feel pain from as early as 12 weeks. This calls for a review of the current laws on feticide and pain.
“In 2019, 17,258 women underwent an abortion at 13 weeks or later in England and Wales, all without any guidance for offering or mandating the use of pain relief for the unborn baby at any age.
The Government, however, recognises that babies undergoing surgery in the womb for Spina Bifida are administered pain relief from 20 weeks gestation. It is a tragedy that between January and June this year, 1,618 abortions occurred at this same age (20 weeks or later), inflicting pain on human beings who likely – as science is increasingly showing – are indeed capable of feeling pain.
“This discrepancy suggests a reluctance to accept the reality of abortion, which abortion providers are keen to avoid. To acknowledge these unborn children feel pain is to acknowledge that fetuses are vulnerable human beings requiring protection.
“Reviewing the science on fetal pain therefore necessitates a recognition that there is another human being involved who is being denied their right to life and is in pain whilst their life is being ended.”