What’s Pain Got to Do with It? Why Arguments over Fetal Pain Capability Ultimately Miss the Mark in the Abortion Debate


Megan Almon

Article ID:



Mar 8, 2023


Mar 5, 2020

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

Max Lucado’s You Are Special is a little bitty story that packs a great big punch with its central idea. Punchinello, the book’s protagonist, lives in a society in which some of his kind don’t matter as much as others. He doesn’t run as fast or jump as high and isn’t as well-spoken or attractive as many of the other Wemmicks. So he doesn’t wear even a single one of the gold stars that adorn those who display the valued abilities. Instead, Punchinello is covered in gray dots, a visible reminder that he has been deemed unworthy. At the beginning of Lucado’s tale, Punchinello adopts the lie of his less-than status.1

“Some don’t matter as much as others” is just an idea, but ideas have a reliable habit of teasing themselves out in reality. When that particular idea is attached to human beings, history provides a daunting index of the results. “Some human beings matter more than others” lurked beneath chattel slavery, the Holocaust, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, and countless other atrocities.

When intrinsic dignity — the idea that human beings have an endowed dignity in light of their universally shared human nature — is replaced with attributed dignity, the dignity-defining trait or function becomes just whatever the person(s) holding the cultural megaphone stipulates it should be. The proverbial megaphone is regurgitating this underlying idea once again in light of recent anti-abortion legislation, particularly concerning the fetus’s capacity to feel pain. A Salon article from a handful of years ago encapsulates well the point of view. In “Fetal Pain Is a Lie: How Phony Science Took over the Abortion Debate,” author Katie McDonough calls for the abolition of protective “pain capable” laws for human fetuses at or beyond 20 weeks’ gestation.2 McDonough insists that the laws are moot, since her scientific sources confirm that 20-week-old human fetuses allegedly cannot experience pain the way fully developed human adults do. The implication, of course, is that a pesky notion such as pain inflicted during death by dismemberment should not stand in the way of abortion on demand.

McDonough’s application of the science is questionable at best, but even if it weren’t, what makes “the ability to experience pain” so value endowing in the first place? What happens when we take that idea on a test drive across the spectrum of human experiences? In the end, we find that “pain capability” conversations, though not unimportant, are extraneous to the wrongness of abortion, and that drawing the line of “who counts” at one’s ability to hurt is blatant discrimination. That shouldn’t be surprising. Even given the complex issues that adjoin it, abortion has always been blatant discrimination.

Do Pro-Lifers Rely on “Phony” Science?

It turns out McDonough is right. Twenty-week-old fetuses don’t experience pain as adults do. Additional findings indicate that it could be worse for them. In the Salon piece, Dr. Anne Davis, an abortion provider at Columbia University Medical Center, said that the “part of the brain and nervous system that perceives pain is not connected to the part of the body that receives pain signals until approximately 26 weeks.” Davis concluded that any responses to stimuli prior to that point are merely “reflexive,” not “experiential.”3 Davis and others argue this way based on the assumption that a mature cerebral cortex is necessary for the fetus to experience pain in a meaningful way. However, observation of pain perception in both children and adults born with no, or minimal, cerebral cortex demonstrates that a functioning cortex may not be necessary to feel pain.4 Indeed, evidence suggests that pain mechanisms are in place by, or even before, 20 weeks.5 By 18 weeks post-fertilization, the essential nervous system components are present to link pain receptors to the brain’s pain processing center. And like many features of human beings at earlier stages of development, the fetal structures of pain perception differ in complex ways from adult structures of the same; so direct comparison between the two is largely unhelpful.6 Moreover, the Family Research Council notes that unborn babies as early as 20 weeks will feel pain more intensely than even newborns or adults because, at that stage, “the unborn baby has more pain receptors per square inch than at any other time, and the mechanisms that inhibit pain (a second set of nerves in the feedback loop) have not been established.”7

Some in the science community punt to agnosticism when it comes to whether the fetus is pain capable by 20 weeks. Uncertainty, however, should weigh in favor of circumventing pain. Just as one ought to choose to preserve life if there is a question as to whether or not life is present, one also ought to choose to avoid intentionally inflicting pain if there is a question about whether or not the recipient can experience it.

One More Thing About “Phony” Science

The charge that pro-lifers rely on phony science is not only fallacious, it’s ironic. The pro-life argument depends on embryology to support the unquestionable humanity of the unborn. Pro-lifers appeal to philosophy to establish intrinsic worth as a better grounding for human equality than any of a host of functional traits — pain capability included — that human beings may gain or lose to varying degrees in the course of life. In the wake of polarized state legislations relevant to abortion, all of which are, at least in part, intentional shifts to spur or prepare for a possible overturn of Roe v. Wade, it is abortion advocates who largely have resorted to fear tactics and name calling, far removed from science.

What has occurred is a spike in appeals to tragic, lateterm abortion stories, many involving gut-twisting scenarios such as fetal abnormalities. These abortions account for a chunk of the fewer than 1.3 percent of abortions that take place at or after 21 weeks.8 As truly heart wrenching as these instances are — no one denies that — they do not justify abortion. After all, we wouldn’t intentionally take the life of a toddler suffering from a severe disability or fatal disease. Science and philosophy reveal no essential difference between the unborn and the toddler that would justify killing the former.

Contrary to popular thinking, abortion in those extreme cases does not alleviate emotional distress. Research indicates that more than 97 percent of women who chose to continue pregnancy when their baby was doomed to die have no regrets about doing so. That overwhelming lack of regret is not reflected in women who chose abortion in the same or similar circumstances.9

For the sake of clarity, many who appeal to late-term abortions in cases of terrible or fatal fetal diagnoses do not hold the position that abortion should be allowed in only such cases. They want abortion on demand at every stage of pregnancy for virtually any reason, and that is the view they should honestly and clearly articulate in their attempts to defend abortion.

What’s “Pain Capable” Got to Do with It?

Even if the best available research were someday to demonstrate that 20-week-old fetuses feel no pain at all, how does it follow that we may intentionally kill them? Why does the ability to consciously experience pain, which is closely related to sentience, endow value at all? The pro-life argument isn’t that it is wrong to intentionally kill fetuses because they are capable of experiencing pain. It is that abortion, defined as “intentionally killing the human fetus,” is wrong because it intentionally kills innocent human beings.10

Like other functional traits, if pain capability served as the basis for who counts among valuable humanity, gross inequality would logically follow. After all, the experience of pain is subjective and differs from one individual to the next. Some toddlers cry crocodile tears over a skinned knee while others can hardly be bothered to stop playing long enough to apply antiseptic and a Band-Aid. Some mothers weather childbirth without anesthetic, while others deem it necessary. Redheads are rumored to experience pain differently from their non-ginger counterparts.11 If the ability to experience pain is the basis for human worth (and, consequently, basic rights), it would follow that individuals who experience less pain are less worthy than those who experience more.

Ashlyn Blocker is incapable of experiencing pain at all. Blocker has a rare genetic disorder known as congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis. Because of this disorder, Blocker’s brain doesn’t receive signals that she is experiencing pain or temperature changes. Should it follow that Blocker, whose pain experience may be like that of the very early fetus, could be justifiably killed? Again, the implications are morally repugnant. Consider the following from ethicist Christopher Kaczor: “Certain injuries and diseases greatly hinder the human capacity for pain, as do drugs of various kinds, as well as differences in degrees of concentration and experience. Since adult human beings differ rather radically in their capacity for pain or pleasure, this should lead to the conclusion that they differ rather radically in terms of personhood.”12

Kaczor concludes that if degrees of sentience give rise to corresponding degrees of rights, we’re in trouble. No two individuals have identical capacities for pain or pleasure. Indeed, this version of sentience undermines any hope of equal human rights.

Stumbling over S.L.E.D.

Inevitably, the abortion advocate stumbles over philosopher Stephen Schwarz’s S.L.E.D. Schwarz determined that there is no morally relevant difference between the embryo and the adult that would have justified killing someone at that earlier stage. In fact, Schwarz determined, there are only four areas of difference you can point out between the unborn and the born: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.13 Pain capability falls under the “L” because it deals with a particular level of development that human beings may gain or lose in the course of their life.

The ability to experience pain does point to additional wrong inflicted by an act of abortion. It may be that conversations about fetal pain awaken the moral intuitions of some and bring awareness back to the primary evil at issue — the taking of innocent human lives.

Back to the Story

When Punchinello met a fellow Wemmick named Lucia, he learned that attributed dignity is bankrupt in light of a deeper, greater truth. Lucia wore neither gold stars nor gray dots. In fact, whenever someone tried to stick one or the other on her, the sticker would simply refuse to stick. Curious, Punchinello asked Lucia about her uncanny, sticker-shedding abilities. She introduced him to the woodworker, Eli — Punchinello’s maker. Eli taught the young Wemmick that the stickers stick only if Punchinello wanted them to; and the more he trusted Eli, the less the stickers would stick.

Therein, this little bitty story teaches another great big lesson. Ultimately, our shared intrinsic dignity is grounded in our image bearing status. It was endowed to us by our Maker from the moment we came into existence, and it cannot ultimately be taken from us or replaced with attributed “stars” or “dots,” no matter how many power hungry tyrants, corrupt regimes, or well-meaning reformers advocating for “women’s reproductive freedom” without consideration for a whole class of females try to make it so.

This gospel children’s story speaks volumes about the ongoing struggle in our nation over abortion. It tells us that the ability to feel pain has no bearing on one’s ultimate worth, and the lack of exercising such a trait does not justify killing any human being. It tells us that the zealous individual(s) on either side of this chasm are full members of image–bearing humanity who deserve the same amount of respect as the unborn children pro-life advocates are trying to protect. And it tells us that God’s grace, difficult though it is to fully understand, is more than sufficient to heal and give great hope to those who suffer because of abortion.

Megan Almon is a speaker with Life Training Institute. She addresses audiences and trains students nationally on pro-life apologetics and related topics.


  1. Max Lucado, You Are Special (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997).
  2. Katie McDonough, “Fetal Pain Is a Lie: How Phony Science Took over the Abortion Debate,” Salon, August 7, 2013, https://www.salon.com/2013/08/07/fetal_pain_is_a_lie_how_phony_science_took_over_the_abortion_debate/.
  3. McDonough, “Fetal Pain Is a Lie.”
  4.  Roland Brusseau, MD, “Developmental Perspectives: Is the Fetus Conscious?” International Anesthesiology Clinics 46, 3 (2008), 16–18.
  5. See “Answering the Pain Deniers: The Three Major Claims of Those Who Deny the Existence of Unborn Pain by 20 Weeks,” Doctors on Fetal Pain, n.d., https://www. doctorsonfetalpain.com/answering-the-pain-deniers/.
  6.  K. O’Donnell and V. Glover, “New Insights into Prenatal Stress: Immediate and Long-term Effects on the Fetus and Their Timing,” in Neonatal Pain, ed. Giuseppe Buonocore and Carlo V. Bellieni (Milan: Springer, 2008), 59.
  7. Arina O. Grossu, “What Science Reveals About Fetal Pain,” Family Research Council Issue Analysis, October 2017, https://www.frc.org/fetalpain.
  8. “Induced Abortion in the United States,” Guttmacher Institute, September 2019, https://
  9. Christopher Kaczor, “Do Women Regret Giving Birth When the Baby Is Doomed to Die?” Public Discourse, January 23, 2019, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2019/01/47802/.
  10.  Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 8.
  11. Laura Blue, “Do Redheads Really Experience More Pain? The Jury’s Still Out,” Time, August 12, 2009, http://healthland.time.com/2009/08/12/do-redheads-really-feel-more-painthe-jurys-still-out/.
  12. Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion, 78–79.
  13. Stephen Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990), 18.
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