Science & Technology

Republican Senator Graham Introduces Bill to Ban Abortions After 20 Weeks


War on Women
Seekingdivinity: Dreamstime

Some Republican politicians evidently believe that fighting the Culture War is a winning electoral strategy. Consequently, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is introducing a bill with co-sponsors Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. From Politico:

A recent Quinnipiac poll found 55 percent of voters support the 20-week limit, one of a slew of polls that have Republicans betting that late-term abortion will unite the GOP in ways other issues don't.

Of course, it's not about elections.

Graham said in an interview that the legislation is less about politics, more about conscience.

"The government has a legitimate interest in protecting the unborn child over the 20-week period because they are capable of feeling pain and the scientific evidence is overwhelming," Graham said. "When you do surgery on a 20-week baby, you provide anesthesia because of pain."

Back in July, I delved into the scientific question of "Do Fetuses Feel Pain?" It turns out that most of the medical groups that have considered the issue have concluded that it is highly unlikely that fetuses can have a conscious experience of pain before the third trimester of development. For example, I noted a study by the United Kingdom's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) on the topic: 

The RCOG's report, Fetal Awareness: A Review of Research and Recommendations for Practice was issued in March 2010. "In reviewing the neuroanatomical and physiological evidence in the fetus," it found, "it was apparent that connections from the periphery [of the fetal body] 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." In other words, while fetuses can react to pain, at the 24-week stage of brain development there is no subject present that is capable of experiencing pain.

The RCOG report also found that even after 24 weeks of development, fetuses abide "in a continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation" that "can suppress higher cortical activation in the presence of intrusive external stimuli." Since fetuses cannot experience pain before 24 weeks, the RCOG recommends against administering pain-relieving drugs when treating fetuses in the womb except in cases when it's necessary to immobilize them.

In other words, the senators are justifiying their legislation using statements that are very likely to be scienifically wrong.

In any case, what percentage of abortions occur after 20 weeks now? As I reported:

The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in 2009, 64 percent of abortions were performed before 8 weeks' gestation, and 91.7 percent before 13 weeks. Seven percent were performed between 14 and 20 weeks, and just 1.3 percent after 21 weeks. Out of 784,000 abortions, just over 10,000 were performed after 21 weeks' gestation. There are not good data on why some women wait until after 21 weeks before choosing abortion, but two likely reasons come to mind: a prenatal discovery of significant fetal abnormalities, and embarrassed adolescent denial.

Naturally, proponents of a woman's right to choose are pushing back. I received an emailed statement from Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a national women's advocacy organization declaring:

"When politicians introduce these inhumane bans on abortions, they are tying the hands of doctors who want to help couples going through heartbreaking situations like serious fetal anomalies. Less than 2% of abortions occur after 20 weeks, and many of them are wanted pregnancies that are just too dangerous or unhealthy to continue. Sen. Graham's bill criminalizing women's reproductive choices after 20 weeks does not make women or our families safer or healthier. We urge members of the Senate to reject this extreme bill and stand up for the rights of American women."

The Politico article concludes:

Democrats are more than willing to have the debate, seeing the issue as an electoral loser for Republicans.

Even if the polls now show 55 percent support for banning abortion after 20 weeks, I have every confidence that tone-deaf and ham-fisted rhetoric by Republican pols in Congress will soon turn this around.