In the Abortion Debate, Skewing the Science on Fetal Pain

In our weekly roundup: The latest 20-week abortion ban, the diversity of gun violence, and other science news.


The House of Representatives passed legislation on Tuesday that would make it a crime to perform or attempt an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill, titled the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, is based on the claim that at 20 weeks, or about 5 months into a pregnancy, a fetus becomes capable of experiencing pain.

Anti-abortion legislators assert that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, but the evidence isn’t there.

Visual: Rick Lowe/Getty

While the bill states that “there is substantial medical evidence” to support this assertion, experts don’t agree.

A review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005 states that the experience of pain is unlikely before the third trimester, which begins at around 29 weeks. In 2015, the president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that “no research since [the review’s] publication has contradicted its findings.”

Though Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a professor of pediatrics now at Stanford University, told The New York Times in 2013 that he believed fetal pain could be likely earlier in development, he and two other scientists said they didn’t think their work or other research supported fetal-pain laws.

This is the third time the House has passed a 20-week abortion ban since 2013. President Trump has said he will sign the bill if it passes, but it is not expected to make it through the Senate.

Also in the news:

• On Sunday, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a concert in Las Vegas, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds more. The attack has reignited America’s debate over gun control, but the diverse situations involved in gun violence necessitate a much more complex discussion. (FiveThirtyEight)

• A study published this week in the journal Science found traces of chemicals from neonicotinoids — a class of pesticides linked to the decline of honeybees — in 75 percent of honey samples from around the world. (BBC)

• When researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia announced earlier this year that they had successfully tested a womb-like device in the development of fetal lambs, narratives proliferated about a possible dystopian future where human pregnancy takes place entirely outside of the body. Physiological and technological limitations suggest that future won’t be here anytime soon, if at all. (Undark)

• Weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, half the island is still without clean drinking water and at least 90 percent of people are without electricity. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency had been publishing these statistics on its website, but removed them Thursday without explanation. (Washington Post)

• At a meeting of the National Space Council on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence announced the goal of returning U.S. astronauts to the moon. He described this as “steppingstone” to getting humans on Mars. (The Verge)

• And finally: The EPA will propose to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, according to a document seen by Reuters. The document said the agency is considering “developing a rule similarly intended to reduce CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel electric utility generating units,” but did not give further information. (Reuters)

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6 comments / Join the Discussion

    It should be passed. And it’s not just about pain its about taking life. Being a medical professional I know how to sedate someone to death -killing someone painlessly doesn’t reduce the intensity of the crime.

    As a medical professional then you also know it is deeply unethical to demand that a person give up blood, tissue or organs so that another might survive. It is illegal to compel a person to do so. It is also illegal and unethical to take blood, tissue, organs from a corpse if the person did not consent before death. So compelling a woman to give her blood, tissue, and risk deah to carry a fetus to term means that you believe the woman has fewer rights than a corpse. Oh, also as a medical professional, you should understand data. Actual researchers believe that 20 weeks is too early for fetal pain.

    If the new bill fails in the Senate then we the people should elect a new Senate

    Or maybe we the people should elect a new house that bases their legislation off of science and not ignorance.

    A developing child is the most vulnerable of all human life. The real question people need to be asking is why has HUMAN LIFE become so cheap that there are those literally willing to throw someone so precious as a child IN THE TRASH. Everyone is so shocked by the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. Calling it an act of pure evil. No one in their right mind would agree with the gunman who did that. Yet, hundreds of thousands of abortions are performed every year worldwide with no mass protests. This world is polluted. It is polluted with the thought that “No one else is more important than me. Only what I think and feel is relevant. My life, and my beliefs are more important than yours.” Thoughts become actions. Actions make up the world we live in. The children who are silently murdered every day have no ability to make the world a better place. They are denied the right to do so by those selfish enough to pull the trigger. Just like the gunman in Vegas. Just like the terrorists who kill innocent people because they are so sure that only their way is the right way. To tell you the truth, this world is not worthy of those who have been aborted. Not while individuals who are so certain of everything, so enamored with themselves, while actually knowing nothing at all still walk this earth.

    and every single one is the choice of the mother in whose body the fetus is growing, not yours. And human life has always been cheap, how many will die if Trunp’s latest bout of willy waving actually causes a war in Korea? How many more people will suffer and die because the USA is the richest country without universal healthcare. You people so often care more about potential lives unborn than people already here. An before you bring your god into this conversation do consider he aborts far more children doctors ever do.

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