The foetus is sensitive to pain… and emotions

Publié le 31 Aug, 2013

by Professor Emmanuel SAPIN1


While Carlo Bellieni wonders about the pain of the woman after abortion, what does experience the foetus? An article, published in mid-September, informed that the U.S. House of Representatives voted a bill tending to extend the prohibition of abortion beyond 20 weeks, in force into twelve states, on the ground that beyond this date, the foetus feels pain. Does this mean that below 20 weeks the foetus does not fell anything? Professor Emmanuel Sapin enlightens us on the question.


A distinction has to be drawn between physical suffering (pain) and psychic suffering as mental state conscious of the physical pain. This mental suffering is only felt by the child after the birth.

The physical suffering as a delivery to the brain of stimulation called nociceptive2 (caused for instance by a bite), requires a maturation of neurological system.

A distinction has to be made: between the reflex arch present before 20 weeks (removal of a limb when bite), and the information going back, at the “low part” of the brain, possible before 20 weeks, and, finally, the brain memorization of the pain which, is performed in “higher” centres of the brain which is not sufficiently mature at 20 weeks.

For this reason, ignoring the central effects of a painful stimulation on the foetus, we have made the decision, when, pioneers, we operated foetus with some serious malformations, at Saint Vincent de Paul Hospital in Paris in the years 89-91, to anaesthetize the foetus operated injecting a product in the cord in order to avoid any pain.


Finally, a painful state felt by the pregnant woman is a stress to which she reacts by secreting hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) which will have an effect on the foetus’ brain from the second quarter of the pregnancy, with consequences on post-natal behaviour of the child.


1. Professor in infant and neonatal surgery, and head of paediatric surgery department at the University hospital of Dijon;

2. Painful stimulation of a nervous receptor of the body.

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