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Scientists Studying ‘Fetal Pain’ Don’t Actually Want Their Research To Justify Abortion Bans

By Tara Culp-Ressler  

"Scientists Studying ‘Fetal Pain’ Don’t Actually Want Their Research To Justify Abortion Bans"

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An abortion opponent in Texas rallies in support of a 20-week ban

An abortion opponent in Texas rallies in support of a 20-week ban

CREDIT: Todd Wiseman/The Texas Tribune

Across the country, 20-week abortion bans have become somewhat of a flash point in the debate over reproductive rights. Multiple states have rushed to outlaw abortion procedures after 20 weeks — largely based on the scientifically dubious claim that fetuses start to feel pain at that point — and the House of Representatives recently passed a national version of this type of ban.

On both a state and national level, 20-week bans are typically modeled after draft legislation from the anti-choice group National Right to Life that emphasizes the “pain of the unborn.” By making the claim that fetal pain should trump women’s right to choose an abortion, the anti-choice community has been able to effectively chip away at the protections under Roe v. Wade, which guarantees the right to a legal abortion until about 24 weeks of pregnancy. In order to justify this position, abortion opponents cite the same few researchers whose work diverges from the rest of the scientific community’s position that pain doesn’t occur during the second trimester of pregnancy.

But as the New York Times reports, even the handful of scientists whose work has ventured into fetal pain development didn’t expect that research to end up spurring abortion bans. Many of them are uncomfortable that they continue to be cited to justify these political fights. In fact, “scientists with varying views of pain development said they did not consider their work applicable to fetal-pain laws or the highly charged abortion debate.”

One of the scientists whose work is most frequently cited to prove that “fetal pain” bans are necessary is Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a University of Tennessee professor who has suggested that fetal pain may occur between 18 and 24 weeks. The professor speculates that fetuses may be able to feel pain even without a fully-developed cortex, a conclusion that other scientists have disputed. As Mother Jones reports, Anand’s work was referenced at least four times on the House floor during Congress’ debate over a potential national 20-week abortion ban this past June.

But Anand told the New York Times that the “issue of fetal pain does not have much relevance for abortion” since the vast majority of abortions occur before he believes a fetus might be capable of experiencing pain. Indeed, just 1.5 percent of all abortions occur after 20 weeks (the women who need later abortion care are typically either too poor to afford the procedure before that point, or didn’t discover serious fetal health defects earlier). Anand added that in cases where a later abortion is necessary, he believes there are “techniques” that could be used to prevent fetal pain.

In 2004 and 2005, Dr. Anand testified about his research into fetal pain before lawmakers considering 20-week abortion bans. After that, however, he started turning down offers to participate in legislative debates. “I’ve been asked to testify many, many times, and I’ve turned it down,” he explained recently, saying he never intended to “support” anti-abortion priorities. “I feel it’s just gotten completely out of hand.”

Another scientist cited frequently by National Right to Life is Dr. Bjorn Merker, a Swedish neuroscientist who conducted research on five children who lacked most of their cortex. In 2007, Merker published a paper reporting that those children appeared to smile and cry, and that suggested the cerebral cortex may not necessarily be the “organ of consciousness” that most scientists assume it is. Since abortion opponents claim that fetuses don’t need the cortex in order to feel pain, they say Merker’s research backs up the idea that pain can occur in the second trimester.

That’s news to Merker. In an email exchange with the New York Times, the neuroscientist said he was unaware he has been “cited in connection with the abortion issue.” He pointed out that his research had only “marginal bearing” on fetal pain and “did not deal with pain specifically.”

The persistent myths about fetal pain don’t just have an impact on legislation. The ongoing debate leads some women to believe that choosing to end a pregnancy really will cause the fetus pain. Dr. Anne Davis, the consulting medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Health, told the New York Times that the publicity surrounding these laws has led increasing numbers of her patients to ask about fetal pain in the second trimester. She has to reassure them that the best scientific evidence doesn’t support this idea.

The anti-choice community has framed the abortion debate around later procedures — and particularly the junk science about pain at 20 weeks — in order to construe abortion as an inherently barbaric procedure. That strategy has been largely successful. The public support for abortions tends to drop off for later procedures. But when Americans are given more context about the rare situations in which women may need a later abortion, they’re strongly opposed to limiting this type of reproductive health care for individuals in desperate circumstances.

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