The report concludes that fetuses under 24 weeks must be pain-free, because at that age the wiring doesn’t exist to send pain signals from nerves around the body to the cortex, the area of the brain where pain is experienced. At which later point such connections form is unknown, so analgesia should still be considered after 24 weeks, the RCOG says.

When Nebraska legislators debated the state’s new abortion law, it was claimed that fetuses must feel pain because they have the same reflex reactions to pain as children and adults. Templeton dismisses this reasoning. “There are indeed reflex responses, but in our view, because the nerves are not wired up to the cortex, they are reflex actions without experience of pain,” he says.

The report notes that the same reflexes are seen in seriously malformed fetuses that have no brain at all, and therefore can’t possibly experience pain.

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Nebraska is the only U.S. state so far to ban abortion based on the concept of fetal pain. (Several states, including Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Texas, require doctors to tell patients that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks.) However, the very notion of a 20-week threshold is out of step with the U.S. medical consensus, as indicated by a 2005 review by The Journal of the American Medical Association, which found limited evidence “regarding the capacity for fetal pain” and that such pain was “unlikely before the third trimester” (28 weeks).

As NEWSWEEK has noted, Nebraska’s move is significant because it represents a direct challenge to the notion of “fetal viability”—the point at which the fetus is capable of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. In the well-known 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court described this point, essentially 22 to 24 weeks, as the legitimate trigger where a state could outlaw abortion (with exceptions for the mother’s life or health). The Nebraska law moved the goalposts to earlier in a woman’s pregnancy—and this was a tremendous victory for anti-abortion activists. Little wonder the pro-choice lobby is likely to mount a constitutional challenge.

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Dr. Steven Zielinski, an internal medicine physician from Oregon, is one of the leading researchers into the concept of fetal pain and published the first reports in the 1980s to validate research show evidence for it.

He has testified before Congress that an unborn child could feel pain at “eight-and-a-half weeks and possibly earlier” and that a baby before birth “under the right circumstances, is capable of crying.”…

Anand said many medical studies conclude that unborn babies are “very likely” to be “extremely sensitive to pain during the gestation of 20 to 30 weeks.”

“This is based on multiple lines of evidence,” Dr. Anand said. “Not just the lack of descending inhibitory fibers, but also the number of receptors in the skin, the level of expression of various chemicals, neurotransmitters, receptors, and things like that.”

Anand explained that later-term abortion procedures, such as a partial-birth abortion “would be likely to cause severe pain.”