House Republicans Pass Anti-Abortion Bill Based On Pseudo-Science

Conservatives rarely give up on a bad idea, and have no problem with basing their legislation on junk science. Back in January, 2015 I wrote about Republican efforts to restrict abortion based upon the scientifically invalid idea that a fetus can feel pain at twenty weeks:

Conservative efforts to ban abortions after 20 weeks are based on ignoring science, just as many conservatives do in denying evolution and climate change. Conservatives make pseudo-scientific claims that the fetus can feel pain at this point, despite the cerebral cortex not being developed until well after this point. There is no real controversy over this point in medicine. Conservatives sometimes twist studies showing simple reflexes as indicating that the fetus is feeling pain. Often they misquote researchers to falsely claim their is a scientific basis for their bogus claims. More on this faux controversy over the science here and here.

The 20 week ban is especially harmful to the rights of women as fetal abnormalities are often not discovered until after this point. It is understandable that a woman who discovers after 20 weeks that she is carrying a fetus which has severe brain abnormalities which would prevent survival might want to abort, but Republicans would deny them this choice by setting an arbitrary limit before such abnormalities are apparent. It is also feared that once they set the line at 20 weeks they will use more pseudo-science to justify moving it up.

Conservatives have also practiced pseudo-science in trying to make the abortion debate over the moment when life begins, when development of the human embryo and fetus is a continuum. Conception is a process without an exact moment at which it occurs, and even fertilization can take twenty-four hours.

If conservatives are really concerned about preventing fetal pain their policies are counterproductive. Late term abortions are very rare in this country, primarily done when the mother’s health is in danger. Another common reason for abortions being delayed until after 20 weeks is the inability of the mother to obtain the abortion earlier, often due to roadblocks placed by Republicans making abortions more difficult to obtain. Of course Republican opposition to contraception further increases the number of abortions. If conservatives were consistent in desiring to prevent fetal pain, they should facilitate the ability of women to obtain both contraception and to obtain early abortions even beyond twenty weeks and before the actual ability to feel pain is present.

What I wrote in that previous post still applies today as the House of Representatives passed a bill to ban abortions nationwide after twenty weeks, ignoring the fundamental right of a woman to control her own body, ignoring the science, and even ignoring conservative arguments regarding states’ rights. Vox reports on this, and presents arguments regarding the science similar to those made above:

The House voted on Tuesday to pass a bill that would make abortion after 20 weeks illegal in every state in the country. Called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, it’s based on the idea that a fetus at 20 weeks’ gestation can feel pain.

“The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act will protect the voiceless, the vulnerable, and the marginalized,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House majority leader, in a statement last month. “It will protect those children who science has proven can feel pain.” President Donald Trump has promised to sign the bill if it passes; during the campaign, he said such a bill “would end painful late-term abortions nationwide.”

In fact, the best available science shows that fetuses probably cannot feel pain until well after 20 weeks. Advocates of abortion rights say 20-week bans at the state level have harmed women, forcing them to travel to another state, often at great expense, to get the care they seek. And opponents of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act fear that, though it is unlikely to pass the Senate, it will ultimately spread dangerous misinformation…

The text of the bill includes a section on the science of fetal pain, which states that “there is substantial medical evidence that an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization, if not earlier.”

However, the general scientific consensus is that no such evidence exists. “There’s actually conclusive evidence that shows that the neurologic structures in a fetus aren’t completely laid down and working yet until much further along in pregnancy, we think even the third trimester,” said Jennifer Conti, a clinical assistant professor and OB-GYN at Stanford University and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. Twenty weeks, she said, “is just an arbitrary limit set in place by politicians that has no medical or scientific backing.”

The most comprehensive look at fetal pain to date was a literature review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005. According to the review, the structures needed for fetuses to feel pain begin to develop between 23 and 30 weeks’ gestation, and studies of premature babies suggest they can’t feel pain until 29 or 30 weeks. While this review is now 12 years old, it still holds true — “no research since its publication has contradicted its findings,” wrote Mark S. DeFrancesco on behalf of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2015.

The House bill makes a number of claims that contradict scientific consensus. For instance, the bill states that “after 20 weeks, the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult human, for example, by recoiling.” However, according to the group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco, “limb withdrawal occurs even in full-term babies in response to non-painful tactile sensations, including light touch. Thus the appearance of limb withdrawal on ultrasound represents a reflex rather than a response to pain.”

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6 Comments

  1. 1
    David Duff says:

    Still issuing all that pseudo-scientific piffle, I see. The life process begins when sperm hits egg and if that is wrong then please specify, *exactly and scientifically*, when, in your opinion, it does begin.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Saying that a fetus feels pain at twenty weeks is physiologically impossible, and therefore to ban abortion based upon this pseudoscience.

    The question of when “the life process begins” is a totally different question unrelated to this legislation. As I have discussed before the scientific answer to exactly when life begins is that there is no such exact point. Human embryonic development is a continuum. To claim an exact point is also pseudoscience. Fortunately even these Republicans are not trying to ban abortion at the point of implantation (although I’m sure they would if they thought they could do so without even more opposition than they will receive on this.)

  3. 3
    Bob says:

    The issue has nothing whatever to do with truth, scientific or otherwise. It’s a classic wedge issue the Republicans have been making hay on for decades. The bill’s title is another masterpiece of dishonest language and is unlikely to pass the Senate, because it’s more valuable as a wedge issue than a law. If it were to pass it would motivate a wave of votes against Republicans.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    I have always suspected that the Republican leadership does not want Row v. Wade to be overturned, moving the issue back to the states. Despite their calls for states’ rights when it is advantageous, they do not want every election around the country to have abortion as an issue. They know that as long as abortion is legal, a certain percentage will be excited and vote Republican. If each election determined the legality of abortion in each state, many more would be turning out to vote against the Republicans.

    Obviously they don’t care about science or the truth as is also seen in other positions they hold.

  5. 5
    Bob says:

    This is too perfect: Crusading anti-abortion Republican Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of his term. The married Republican was caught encouraging his mistress to have an abortion.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    Hypocritical but not at all surprising. 

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