CBS Evening News Acknowledges that Premature Babies Feel Pain

As part of a larger series on “Easing the Pain,” CBS Evening News aired a segment on February 21 about the pain felt by premature babies during medical procedures, highlighting the dignity of human life.

While explaining that acceptance that premature babies feel pain is leading to better care for babies requiring extensive medical procedures, CBS never answered an important question: why do some physicians continue to insist that babies don't feel pain?

CBS contributor Dr. Sanjay Gupta framed the story around Josie Toland, a baby girl born two months prematurely.  He reported that “as recently as 15 years ago, it was thought newborns were not developed enough to feel or remember pain.  Amazingly, newborns often received little or no anesthesia for most medical procedures, even surgery.” 

Now newborns receive anesthesia, and technology is paving the ground for better care. 

Sheryl Brahnam, a computer scientist from Missouri State University, talked to CBS about her research on newborn pain: 

SHERYL BRAHNAM, MISSOURI STATE UNIVERSITY: You can't just stand over an infant 24/7 and watch them, and so, that's why I thought a machine system would be pretty good at handling some of these problems.

SANJAY GUPTA, CBS CONTRIBUTOR: Sheryl Brahnam is a computer scientist working with facial recognition technology to identify key spots in a baby's face that signal pain.

BRAHNAM: It's wrong to think that every time a baby experiences pain they're going to cry.

GUPTA: These are photos of ordinary crying. These babies are in pain. The difference-- don't look so much at their mouths. Focus on their foreheads. See how they're furrowed? The hope is one day a camera would constantly monitor the faces of newborns and alert doctors to even the subtle signs that something is wrong.

BRAHNAM: It gives the infant a voice. It lets the infant cry out, "I am in pain."

However, not everyone acknowledges that the youngest in society can feel pain.   

Dr. K.J.S. Anand, a leading researcher of infant pain and a pediatrician at Arkansas Children's Hospital told CBS “There are still medical physicians, nurses who hold out that babies probably do not feel pain.” 

Nearly twelve years ago Dr. Jean A. Wright of the Emory University School of Medicine testified before Congress in favor of the partial-birth abortion ban.  Part of her testimony included studies that found fetuses can experience pain.  In the conclusion of her testimony, she stated, “It is likely that the threshold for such pain perception is lower than that of older preterm newborns, full-term newborns, and older age groups.”  

So if an unborn baby can feel pain, what would cause medical professionals to think a newborn baby would not feel pain as well? 

Note to CBS: It may be time for an in-depth special on the holdouts who are reluctant to acknowledge the full humanity of young life. 

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center