Talk by A/P Stuart Derbyshire on “The challenge of fetal pain” (21 Aug 12pm-1pm)

Speaker: A/P Stuart Derbyshire

Title: The Challenge of Fetal Pain

Date: 21 August 2013 (Wednesday), 12pm-1pm

Venue: AS4/02-08 (Psychology Department Meeting Room)


The majority of commentary on fetal pain has looked at the maturation of neural pathways to decide a lower age limit for fetal pain. This approach is sensible because there must be a minimal necessary neural development that makes pain possible. Very broadly, it is generally agreed that the minimal necessary neural pathways for pain are in place by 24 weeks gestation. Arguments remain, however, as to the possibility of fetal pain before or after 24 weeks. Some argue that the fetus can feel pain earlier than 24 weeks because pain can be supported by subcortical structures. Others argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage because the fetus is maintained in a state of sedation in the womb and lacks further neural and conceptual development necessary for pain. Much of this argument rests on the definition of terms such as ‘wakefulness’ and ‘pain’. If a behavioural and neural reaction to a noxious stimulus is considered sufficient for pain then pain is possible from 24 weeks and probably much earlier. If a conceptual subjectivity is considered necessary for pain, however, then pain is not possible at any gestational age. Regardless of how pain is defined it is clear that pain for conceptual beings is qualitatively different than pain for non-conceptual beings. It is therefore mistaken to draw an equivalence between fetal pain and pain in the older infant or adult.

About the speaker:

Stuart’s main interest is neuroimaging and pain and he has written extensively on these topics. His work extends beyond pain and imaging, however, to deeper questions of what it means to be human and how experience develops. Consequently he has written extensively on a wide range of topics including fetal pain. He is regularly consulted for his expertise in this area and has presented evidence for the UK Department of Health, the UK Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee and the UK Royal College of Gynaecologists. He has also spoken before the Virginia Senate in the US and consulted for the New York Civil Liberties Association. He was recently interviewed for the New York Times for a piece examining new fetal pain laws in several US States. Stuart joined the faculty at NUS at the beginning of July as a new Associate Professor from the university of Birmingham, UK. He has a joint A-Star appointment in the Clinical Imaging Research Centre (CIRC).

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