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AJournal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article from late August claimed that an unborn child is unlikely to perceive pain until the 29th week in the womb. Reviewing studies on the topic, the article's authors concluded there is "limited" evidence that fetuses perceive pain before the third trimester.

The article gained notoriety when The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that two of the study's five authors had ties to the abortion industry. Susan Lee worked for eight months for the organization now called NARAL Pro-Choice America. Eleanor Drey is medical director of the abortion clinic at San Francisco General Hospital.

Fetal pain is becoming the newest battleground over legal abortion. Advocates on both sides have argued about whether unborn children at least 20 weeks old feel pain and thus should be given pain-killing medicine during abortions.

The JAMA article distinguished between pain and stress-inducing stimuli. The researchers said feeling pain requires that the thalamus and cerebral cortex of the brain be connected, which can start at the 29th week. Earlier responses to outside stimuli, though they may look like reactions to pain, are purely physical reactions, they said.

Major pro-life organizations and some medical doctors disputed the article's conclusions. According to a National Right to Life rebuttal, a medical professor at the University of Arkansas provided expert testimony in 2004 asserting that an unborn child "possesses the ability to experience pain from 20 weeks of gestation, if not earlier."

At stake are medical treatments for and the fate of many unborn children in the mid-to-late second trimester. Extrapolating from statistics provided by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice, nonprofit ...

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Painful Choice
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In the Magazine

November 2005

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