CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has recently come under fire for failing to name a single source to justify his assertion that “there’s no scientific evidence” to prove humans are contributing to climate change, is defending his comments by claiming that at least he knows the science about abortion.
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Wednesday, the senator said that liberals who criticize him for ignoring climate science are revealing their “hypocrisy” because they ignore the science supporting the idea that life begins at conception. Rubio claimed this concept is a “proven fact” that people on the left are ignoring.
“Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception,” Rubio said. “So I hope the next time someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of science that human life begins at conception?’”
If Rubio is trying to use abortion politics to prove that he and his Republican colleagues have a clear grasp of science, though, he waded into the wrong issue area.
Although “life begins at conception” is certainly a deeply held religious belief for many Americans, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the concept of “life” here actually has more to do with philosophy than it does with science. As Jodi Jacobson points out at RH Reality Check, “the phrase is highly — and purposefully — misleading because it confuses simple biological cell division both with actual pregnancy and with actual, legal personhood, which are all very different things.”
When scientists talk about conception, they use terms that are more medically specific than “life.” The current definitions relate to fertilization, implantation, and when a woman is officially considered to be pregnant. The medical community agrees that conception begins once a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterine lining — but, thanks largely to Republicans, this hasn’t reached total consensus. State policies have increasingly been attempting to define pregnancy as beginning at fertilization. This divide has huge implications, particularly because social conservatives are now exploiting it to redefine methods of birth control as “abortifacients.” That’s exactly what’s up for debate in Hobby Lobby’s current Supreme Court challenge against Obamacare’s contraception mandate — and conservatives aren’t exactly coming down on the side of science.
And even though Rubio’s comments assume that all abortion rights supporters must deny that life begins at conception, not all of them do. The ethical debate over reproductive rights isn’t necessarily about when life begins, but rather about what agency women have over deciding whether to sustain a potential life within their bodies. Abortion is complex, and many Americans have a mix of complicated opinions about it that are related to factors other than when life begins. Some people are more concerned about when life can survive outside women’s wombs, a medical term known as “viability.”
We have a lot of scientific evidence about viability, which is the cut-off point for legal abortion services under Roe v. Wade. Most OB-GYNs say that fetal viability occurs at about 24 weeks gestation. Scientists know a lot about fetal development during pregnancy, and there’s a lot of medical precedent about how to treat premature deliveries. But, just like conception, this is a medical term that’s been twisted by right-wing abortion opponents with serious policy consequences.
The anti-choice community is currently relying on junk science about “fetal pain” to claim that fetuses are developed enough at 20 weeks gestation to warrant abortion bans beginning at this point. The medical community agrees that there’s no actual evidence to support the assertion that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. Nonetheless, it’s been an extremely successful strategy for abortion opponents, as an increasing number of states have enacted 20-week bans under this specious logic.
Rubio himself has been a proponent of “fetal pain.” In 2013, the Florida lawmaker co-sponsored a national 20-week ban in the Senate — the same type of bill that his GOP colleagues are currently trying to push to a floor vote. “I think there’s significant support across the country for the idea that after 20 weeks, abortion should be significantly limited,” he told the New York Times at the time.
Reproductive rights supporters have been refuting bad science for decades, in a similar manner that climate scientists have been forced onto the defensive against people who deny the realities of climate change. In fact, several years ago, sociologists started wondering if climate denialism would become the “new abortion debate.” So if Rubio was trying to pivot to a completely different issue, he failed.