[Ed. Note: Spin Doctors is a new column at AFCW, where we'll delve into the junk science behind anti-choice legislation. This week, Thomas Alberts debunks fetal pain laws.]
So-called fetal pain laws are the latest anti-choice craze — they’ve passed state legislatures throughout the nation, most notably in Texas, where HB 2 has forced 16 abortion clinics to shut down since September. The claim behind these laws — that fetuses in utero begin feeling “pain” at 20 weeks’ gestation, and so abortion should be illegal after 20 weeks – might seem scientific. After all, if someone is running legislation based on this idea being true, it must be proven somewhere, right?
Well, not exactly. Much like the pseudo-scientific evidence and questionable studies discussed in last week’s post on Post-Abortion Syndrome, the evidence for fetal pain at 20 weeks is weak. Studies claiming to support it have been refuted by respected scientific authorities including the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, a fetus’s brain or nervous system cannot sense pain until 24 weeks – a full month later than what groups pushing these bans claim.
Fudging the facts for emotional appeal isn’t uncommon when it comes to extreme laws like HB 2. When I was a practicing fundamentalist Christian during my early years of college, I recall watching “pro-life” television programming hosted by the Catholic priest Father Frank Pavone. I remember watching alleged ultrasounds of abortions that anti-choice activists claimed showed a fetus physically reacting to the abortion procedure by backing away from medical probes and “flinching.” They even zeroed in on fuzzy stills from these ultrasounds and claimed that they showed “silent screaming.”
However, medical research shows that the movements produced by fetuses on these ultrasounds (despite the frightening and emotion inducing descriptions given by anti-choice activists) are ‘reflexive, not experiential.’ The fetus doesn’t actually feel anything.The reaction I saw was similar to the reflex of a muscle when it is stimulated in a particular way. It was not actually “backing away in terror.” It had no ability to feel terror.
You’d thinking running legislation based on junk science would be a national scandal. But that hasn’t been the case. The fetal pain argument seems to be one of the anti-choice movement’s most compelling strategies. It hasn’t caused the same backlash that the laws mandating transvaginal ultrasounds did. In addition to HB 2, fetal pain legislation has also been introduced in Mississippi (which will soon be enacting it), Minnesota, and West Virginia (whose governor thankfully vetoed legislation passed there).
Another key fact to consider? 20-week abortion bans actually only affect little more than one percent of all abortions that take place in the United States. Supposing that your aim is to reduce abortions, and given how rare abortions after 20 weeks really are, why would you expend so much energy on 20-week bans? The answer is simple, and frightening. 20-week abortion bans aren’t really about reducing abortions or protecting the wellbeing of children. They’re about control, and just one step in a systemic agenda to chip away at reproductive rights. And that’s why we need to fight these bans. Because even one woman denied her fundamental right to abortion care when she needs it is too many.