Pro-life and pro-choice advocates have debated for years over the exact point during development when babies can feel pain. And though it probably won't end the argument, a new British study may finally have the answer. According to researchers at University College in London, England, most babies can start sensing pain a few weeks before they are born.
The researchers studied 46 babies who were born at University College Hospital's maternity wing in Bloomsbury, London. Twenty-one of the babies were born prematurely, giving the researchers an opportunity to monitor the different stages of human brain activity from just 28 weeks of development to those born closer to full term.
How did they determine whether or not the babies could feel pain? Don't worry, it's not as scary as you might think. The researchers evaluated brain activity recordings using electroencephalography as the babies had a heel lance. This is a routine procedure in which a doctor sticks the heel of the baby's foot to collect a blood sample for clinical use.
All babies born in a hospital undergo this procedure. But by studying the brain waves of these particular babies, they could get a better understanding of whether or not babies feel pain at various stages of development. A change in brain activity from general to localized suggested the baby was experiencing pain.
"Babies can distinguish painful stimuli as different from general touch from around 35 to 37 weeks gestation, just before an infant would normally be born," study researcher Lorenzo Fabrizi of University College London said in a statement.
So even five weeks before a baby is born, he is able to feel and respond to pain. And the researchers noted that it is certainly possible that babies can feel pain even before this point, but brain wave analysis could pick it up from 35 weeks onward.
The study was published in the September issue of Current Biology.