What unborn babies know, and when they know it

Last week Stacy Trasancos wrote a commentary piece for the Register called “The Pain Unborn Children Feel.”

In contrast to the dogmatism on this subject often seen on both sides of the abortion debate, Stacy was careful not to claim too much.

And as early as 20 weeks they are able to recoil from stressors and undergo an increase in stress hormones. Excessive exposure to stressors in utero can lead to emotional and behavioral problems later in life.

Does this physiological distress amount to the experience of pain? That’s not an easy question to answer. This doesn’t stop pro-life and pro-choice partisans from offering overly confident answers, though.

Trasancos cites one such overly confident answer on the pro-abortion side: A 2006 article in the British Medical Journal made the unqualified claim that “It is impossible for a fetus to feel pain.”

The reality behind this claim is that the perception of pain as pain is not merely a physiological event, but a subjective experience depending not just on physical capacity but also on cognitive development in relation to formative experiences early in life.

Such formative experiences, the argument assumes, occur only in connection with stimuli outside the womb.

In recent years, though, we’ve learned a lot about just how much more interesting and stimulating an unborn baby’s life can be than was once thought or is commonly supposed.

Some examples:

  1. Sight and visual preferences. It’s been well known for a long time that sounds from the outside world reach babies in the womb — but less well known is that light can reach them too. Sufficiently bright light passes through the abdominal wall; if it’s too bright, babies will flinch from it.
  2. They don’t always flinch from light, though, and sometimes they’re more interested in what they see than other times.

We’ve known for awhile now that newborns demonstrate a preference for looking at faces over other things.

Last year a pioneering study projected light images through the uterine wall — and found that even before they are born babies already prefer face-like images to non-face-like images.
Continue reading


Additional reading

News category: Features.

Tags: , ,