Disclaimer: Re-edited 6/22/13 after someone pointed out that I made a confusing statement about fetal gender.  I don’t want to distract from my point, so I removed the awkward phrasing. -C

They’ve done it again.

House passed the Pain-Capable Infant Protection Act on Tuesday by 228 to 196.  This means that most abortions nationwide are banned after twenty weeks.  With all of these restrictions we’ve been seeing (decreasing time windows, fewer clinics, and more unnecessary procedures and expenses) that abortion may vanish from the conservative radar altogether.  However, the fundamental idea behind this bill is the most disconcerting aspect.

Usually when a politician says something horribly incorrect or misguided about abortion, they stick to talking about either religious matters or how the fetus was conceived in the first place (i.e. it’s a sin or that rape apparently doesn’t result in pregnancies, etc).  However, Texan House Representative Michael Burgess has gone for the Hail Mary pass this time around and made the claim that pregnancy should be banned after fifteen weeks because he’s seen male fetuses put their hands between their legs to feel pleasure.  Therefore, they should be able to feel pain, too.


I’m honestly at a loss for how I should react to this.  On one hand, it’s almost sort of funny – congratulations, Burgess, you’ve just found the world’s thinnest argument.  On the other hand, it’s just going to show how our lawmakers have such an incomplete grasp on pregnancy and women’s bodies that they are inclined to make legal decisions based on this flawed logic.

Let me just break this down for you –

1.  To start, you cannot accurately tell the sex of a fetus until about twenty weeks, which is currently the widely accepted cutoff time to terminate a pregnancy.  I understand this is because a fetus initially develops a sort of hermaphroditic male sex organ, which later is “shredded” if you will and female sex organs grow when the chromosomes begin to kick in.  This means that the sex organs, and the fetus’s gender (or lack thereof), have not reached a critical phase in development for this argument to truly hold up.

2.  The suggestion that specifically male fetuses do this at fifteen weeks is not only incorrect (see above), but it’s also sexist.  Why would only male fetuses be pleasuring themselves?  Why is reaching in between one’s legs to feel pleasure a specifically male action?  And, if this argument is to have black-and-white logic applied to it, does any fetus that does not exhibit such behavior seen as an “unfeeling” fetus and therefore excluded from this exemption?  Are only male fetuses excluded, as according to Burgess, this is a male action?

3.  My main issue with this argument is that it is such a backwards way of trying to further limit the window for a woman to have an abortion.  Human sexuality, something that right-wingers have long condemned, is not a tool that the GOP should be using.  Regulating sex and controlling female sexual agency is something that they have worked for – and now they are trying to use human sexuality to seal the pro-life deal?  A court in India just ruled that “any couple that engages in sexual gratification” is legally married – the tool you use to demonize women cannot be blindly applied to a zygote as well.   You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Burgess.

But as for the science, American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynoecology has previously made the following statement:

The medical profession produced a rigorous scientific review of the available evidence on fetal pain in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 20051. The review concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester. No new studies since the publication of the JAMA paper have changed this dominant view of the medical profession. Supporters of HR 3803 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 study, the supporters’ conclusion does not stand.

Furthermore, if you need a second opinion, British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists had this to say in 2010:

The fetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks because the connections in the fetal brain are not fully formed; Evidence examined by the Working Party showed that the fetus, while in the chemical environment of the womb, is in a state of induced sleep and is unconscious; and, because the 24 week-old fetus has no awareness nor can it feel pain, the use of analgesia is of no benefit.

So what could explain the masturbation and other purposeful movements that Burgess was mentioning?  Well, I’m not a doctor (although I’m sad to say that Burgess cannot say the same, a fact that causes me much discomfort), but in high school health class I remember reading that a fetus will “mimic” breathing to strengthen their lungs prior to birth by “breathing” amniotic fluid in and out rapidly, as if it were hiccuping – not consciously, but mechanically, as a part of their development.  There are a number of possible explanations.

What it boils down to is just another feeble attempt to medically legitimize limiting or outlawing abortion has met our ears.  Akin said a women’s body can “shut down” a pregnancy that comes from rape.  Brewer agreed that a woman is pregnant at the end of her menstrual cycle and therefore two weeks before conception.  And now Burgess is staking the claim that a fifteen-week old fetus, that has not fully formed its nervous system or its gender, masturbates and thus feels physical sensation.  Folks, your religious standards don’t apply, your science doesn’t hold up – so just stop it.

Read more on Jezebel here.

“Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere.”

-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale