Science doesn’t back fetal pain at 20 weeks

But that doesn’t mean there’s no purpose to fetal pain legislation:

The evidence points to the conclusion that fetuses probably don’t feel pain at 20 weeks, but that anti-abortion groups are happy to twist the facts for their purposes. All of the scientists quoted by the Times refuted pro-life talking points and objected to their work being used to promote abortion restrictions. One said he was unaware that his research on children missing part of their brains was being used to support pro-life claims about fetal pain, since his work only has “marginal bearing” on the issue; interested in scientific inquiry rather than politicking, he offered little commentary beyond his opinion that politics “infected” the issue. His work is mentioned a dozen times in one pro-life report titled “Fetal Pain: The Evidence.” Another once thought fetal pain at 20 weeks was “a major possibility;” after more research he concluded that before 24 weeks, fetal pain “is not possible at all.” He’s nonetheless cited in the same pro-life report 27 times.

That should be good news for pro-lifers, right? If the concern is actually fetal pain, then they should be pleased to know that there’s a nearly universal consensus in the medical community that fetuses cannot possibly feel pain in 98.5 percent of abortions. For the other 1.5 percent, the majority of scientists believe pain is still absent, but there are options for women to choose a procedure which would avoid any potential fetal pain, just in case. Problem solved. Instead of dedicating millions of dollars to promoting fetal pain abortion bans after 20 weeks, pro-life groups could focus on helping pregnant women in need or working with family planning organizations to promote sexual health education and contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place. Everyone wins.

Unfortunately, helping women or even decreasing the abortion rate do not top the pro-life agenda. Twenty week abortion bans justified by false claims of fetal pain may appear largely pointless and probably unconstitutional, not to mention addressing a problem that doesn’t need solving, but they rally the base and give the most rabid pro-lifers something to focus on. They exhaust pro-choice groups, who are forced to leverage their own dollars, time, activists and legal teams to oppose these restrictions each time they’re proposed or passed. And they do set the stage for a Supreme Court challenge before a court that has shown itself to be vulnerable to the brand of factually-challenged condescending sexism pushed by anti-abortion groups.

Promotion and passage of 20-week abortion bans won’t actually prevent very many abortions. But the bans will normalize the idea that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks, untrue as it may be, and set the stage for pro-life leaders to increasingly tighten that timeline. They will continue to give the pro-life movement the knowledge that if it just makes up claims and repeats them enough times, Republican politicians, significant swaths of the American public and perhaps even the United States Supreme Court will begin to take those claims as truth. And the ability to make your own unsupported opinions widely-accepted fact is much more powerful than fact itself.

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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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2 Responses to Science doesn’t back fetal pain at 20 weeks

  1. Asia says:

    I think we already know that at some-point in the later months of pregnancy the fetus’s brain crosses a threshold where it bears quite a lot of similarity to a newborn’s brain: the ability to feel pain, the ability to learn etc. These are all gained before a child is born. However, all the reasons a woman might choose to abort a fetus at that stage of pregnancy are still valid. The central premise of the pro-choice movement is that personhood is formed when a being can/does exist at least semi-independently. (In reality, a newborn doesn’t exist very independently)

    • matlun says:

      The OP made a very good and clear argument that the question when the fetus can feel pain is largely an irrelevant question anyway.

      The central premise of the pro-choice movement is that personhood is formed when a being can/does exist at least semi-independently

      I think we should not just assume that there is any clear line where “personhood is formed”. It is a gradual process and any such definition is a fairly subjective social construct.

      The emotional need to have such a clear line is what has made the pro-life position of “life starts at conception” attractive to many, but it is a fallacy.

      We can then also have a separate discussion whether abortion is moral even after the point that we think the fetus/baby has a separate right to life. As in “A Defense of Abortion”

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