Email #300: “Science has proven”?

I understand that the House will be voting today on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act which would make abortions after the middle of the second trimester illegal. You have justified your intention to vote for the bill by saying:

“Science has proven that at 20 weeks babies hear music, respond to human voices, and, most importantly, they can feel pain.”

This is a lie. Science has proven no such thing. The majority of scientific studies supports pain-capability at 24 weeks, 27-28 weeks, or 29-30 weeks.

According the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005:

“Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2010:

“In reviewing the neuroanatomical and physiological evidence in the fetus, it was apparent that connections from the periphery to the cortex are not intact before 24 weeks of gestation and, as most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception, it can be concluded that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation.”

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2012:

“Supporters of fetal pain legislation only present studies which support the claim of fetal pain prior to the third trimester. When weighed together with other available information, including the JAMA and RCOG studies, supporters’ conclusion does not stand.”

According to even Newcastle University scholar Martin Platt, who supports the notion that fetuses feel pain:

“the literature on fetal behaviour, perception, organisation, movement and responses focuses largely on fetuses above 28 weeks of gestation, with a relative lack of studies on the fetus between 20 and 24 weeks. This results in too much reliance on neuroscience, too much reference to animal work, too much extrapolation from both of these and too little real-world human investigation on which to base a realistic view. No one would deny that there are important issues to be confronted, but a sensible debate needs a solid base of rigorous empirical enquiry.”

For these reasons FactCheck.org refutes the premise of Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act:

“A number of Republican House members say scientific research proves a 20-week-old fetus can feel pain. This is a complicated and controversial topic in science, but the ability to feel pain at that specific point in gestation is unproven… We reviewed the literature and spoke with several experts, and we conclude that a firm starting point for pain in the developing fetus is essentially impossible to pin down, and that definitive claims regarding pain perception at 20 weeks are unfounded.”

I understand that you are a career-long opponent of abortion, and I do not imagine that a single email will change your opinion. But whatever your stance on this or any topic, you and your colleagues on both sides of the aisle have a responsibility to the truth. You cannot claim to support a bill because of “science” when actual scientific consensus opposes the bill’s core premise. That is simply a lie.

If your position is so weak that it requires you to lie to your constituents, then you should change your position for one supported by facts. Instead you approach your job like an employee of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, distorting facts to suit your political agenda.

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor of English at Washington and Lee University where he teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017).

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