Fact Check: Do Fetuses Feel Pain at 15 Weeks as Youngkin Claims?

Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has announced his support for a ban on abortions in Virginia after 15 weeks, reasoning that after this point, "the child can feel pain."

This comes in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, removing the legal protection of abortion rights across the U.S.

Now, states can make abortions illegal if they choose: as of September 28, 17 states have banned or restricted abortion, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

a fetus in the womb
Stock image of a fetus in the womb. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin claims that fetuses can feel pain at 15 weeks. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Claim

In a CNN live interview, Youngkin states that he feels this bill will save lives by lowering the number of abortions, and is a compromise.

According to Youngkin, "[15 weeks] is when a child can feel pain, and we should in fact recognise that."

The Facts

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a fetus cannot feel pain until the third trimester, which begins at around 27 weeks.

Pain is a perceived experience, with nerves attached to the skin informing the brain that the body is being damaged. However, for this experience to occur, both the nervous system and brain need to be developed enough.

"We know that there are a lot of steps in between the thing that could cause pain and the actual experience of pain," Dr. Anne Davis, an OB/GYN and the consulting medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Health, told LiveScience in 2016.

"For the system to work—whether in an adult or a fetus—all of the pathways of the nerves need to be connected and functioning."

At around 16 weeks, the fetus is just beginning to respond to external stimuli.

"There's reasonable evidence that brainstem circuits are developed and functional by around 16 weeks' gestation, which is also when motor flexibility starts to be observed," Stuart Derbyshire, an associate professor in psychology and fetal pain expert at the National University of Singapore, told Newsweek.

"Studies with auditory stimuli, for example, have demonstrated more fetal activity and facial movements to music compared with vibration after 16 weeks' gestation. Complex spontaneous movements of the hands towards the eyes, mouth and other regions have been observed from 18 weeks' gestation.

"Those movements vary according to the target. Movements towards the eye are slow and delicate, and involve a prolonged deceleration phase, compared with movement towards the uterine wall.

"From 18 weeks, differential use and control of one hand versus the other can accurately predict postnatal handedness. Those patterns of behavior imply that sensation is informing the motor control."

However, there is no conclusive evidence supporting the idea that fetuses can feel what we know as pain at this stage of pregnancy, especially before it, at 15 weeks.

"It really depends exactly what you mean by 'pain.' If by pain you mean a high-level, self-reflective, conceptual experience, dependent on or necessarily expressed in language, then the fetus does not feel that at any gestational age," Derbyshire said.

"The fetus does not reflect on its experience and think, for example, 'oh no, that hurts, this is going to be a bad day.' There is no equivalence between what you and I might experience when, for example, being needled, and what the fetus might feel."

"If we are talking about fetal pain then we are talking about something very immediate and conceptual—an immediate sensory representation of bodily damage that might be apprehended but definitely not comprehended.

"It is perhaps useful to make a distinction between sensation and perception—pure sensation is beneath all qualitative content. In summary, fetal pain as an explicit subjective experience of 'ouch, that hurts' is impossible," Derbyshire said.

"The fetus never feels that, but then neither does the newborn, the emergence of an explicit understanding—"that I am in pain"—will take several months to emerge."

Newsweek has reached out to Glenn Youngkin for comment.

The Ruling

Unverified.

Unverified

While fetuses do begin to respond to stimuli at around 16 weeks, there isn't sufficient scientific basis behind Youngkin's claim that fetuses can "feel pain at 15 weeks."

While we cannot truly know what the fetal experience is, the scientific consensus is that fetuses cannot perceive pain as anything greater than a stimulus to inform motor function.

FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK

Unverified: The claim could be true or false, but there is at the time of publication insufficient publicly-available evidence to prove so either way. The claim should be treated with caution and skepticism until more evidence becomes available to make a conclusive determination.
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