In Restricting Abortions, Lawmakers Skew Reproductive Science


On Wednesday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a controversial bill into law, effectively banning abortion in the state. Under the new law, it is a felony for doctors to perform an abortion at any stage of pregnancy, with three exceptions:

a woman’s medical condition “necessitates the termination of her pregnancy to avert her death or to avert serious risk of substantial physical impairment of a major bodily function;”
the fetus has a “lethal anamoly,” meaning it would likely die shortly after birth or would be stillborn;
the pregnancy is ectopic, meaning the fertilized egg has implanted outside the womb.

There are no exceptions for pregnancies arising out of rape or incest. (The full text of the new law can be found here.)

Alabama’s legislation is the latest — and most restrictive — in a spate of new measures passed this year to limit abortions. Six other states have already signed abortion restrictions into law, seeking to limit the legality of the procedure to earlier stages of pregnancy, and a further eight are considering such bills.

Abortion debates have long hinged on the legal and moral definition of “fetal personhood,” the point in development at which the unborn must be afforded the rights of any other citizen, including the right to live. The Alabama bill draws its definition of personhood from a 1975 state law, which says, in relation to homicide, “an unborn child in utero at any stage of development, regardless of viability” is legally considered a person. Laws passed recently in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio put the beginning of fetal personhood at six weeks into the pregnancy, when doctors are typically able to detect some cardiac activity emanating from the embryo. But while these so-called “heartbeat laws” use a powerful symbol as the defining mark of personhood, many physicians say they are based on misinterpretations of the science.

At six weeks, embryos are bundles of cells several millimeters long and have not yet developed anything near a typical thumping, pear-shaped heart. “What’s really happening at that point is that our ultrasound technology has gotten good enough to be able to detect electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells,” Sarah Horvath, an obstetrician-gynecologist with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told Wired. Obstetrician-gynecologist Jen Gunter calls this the “babyfication” of embryos — a deliberate misrepresentation of reproductive science for political ends. “The politicians know exactly what they are doing,” wrote Gunter in a blog post in response to Ohio’s law, calling the rhetoric “a way of making a 4 mm thickening next to a yolk sac seem like it is almost ready to walk.”

Reproductive science was more explicitly disregarded in another Ohio bill introduced in April to ban insurance coverage for most abortions, when Representative John Becker included a provision to reimburse patients for a procedure to re-implant an embryo in the event of an ectopic pregnancy.“We don’t have the technology to do that,” Daniel Grossman, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco told The Washington Post. “Nothing can be done to continue that pregnancy.”

The laws have already drawn widespread criticism, and many have been challenged or struck down in lower courts. But proponents of the laws say they expected this, and many have openly divulged their longer-term ambitions: to escalate the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the recent appointments of conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, abortion opponents are hopeful that a now right-leaning Court would uphold an abortion law like Alabama’s, effectively overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 opinion that established protections for abortions until the fetus is viable outside the womb — usually around 24 weeks.

Also in the news:

• The spread of African swine fever (ASF) — a highly contagious and often fatal virus in pigs — is reaching crisis levels in Asia, experts are warning. According to one estimate, the disease could kill one-third of the domestically-raised pigs in China, or close to two million animals. The outbreak, first reported in mainland China last summer, has since spread across the nation and into neighboring countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Mongolia. ASF is not dangerous to humans, but in swine causes fever and severe internal bleeding. The virus is spread by contact — workers can unknowingly carry it on clothing, shoes, or machinery — and through contaminated food and water. Animal disease experts say China, with its poorly regulated network of small farmers, is particularly vulnerable to the spread of ASF, and worry that if the disease remains unchecked it will impact global food security as the country is the world’s largest pork producer. Scientists at City University of Hong Kong called it the “most serious animal health disease” outbreak in years, “if not ever.” (Science)

• Monsanto’s legal woes continued this week as a California couple who said their cancer was caused by the agrochemical company’s signature weedkiller were awarded over $2 billion in damages. According to their attorneys, Alva and Alberta Pilliod of Livermore, California were both diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, four years apart, after using Roundup weedkiller on their property for some 30 years. Tens of thousands of similar lawsuits against the company — filed in the wake of a 2015 World Health Organization report that deemed Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate, to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” — are still pending. Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, maintains that the chemical is safe, and the Environmental Protection Agency “found no risks to public health from the current registered uses of glyphosate” in its latest review. (CNN)

• This week the Trump administration amended its 2020 budget proposal to include an additional $1.6 billion for a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024. The sum would go toward completing a long-delayed heavy rocket and space capsule, and paying for a commercial lunar lander. But experts caution that, even with the extra money, NASA’s budget won’t be large enough to support a lunar expedition on Trump’s ambitious five-year timeline. NASA chief Jim Bridenstine called the proposal a “down payment” on the cost of getting to the moon, though he didn’t indicate how much money would be needed to complete the mission. The new funding request requires congressional approval, and it may face a tough road toward passage: Trump plans to draw the money from the Pell Grant program, a financial aid program for low-income college students, which could be politically unpalatable for many lawmakers. Said Phil Larson, former policy advisor to the Obama administration, “I’m skeptical that any Congress, Republican or Democrat, will add billions of taxpayer dollars for a moon program.” (Quartz)

• Earth’s atmosphere now has the highest concentration of carbon dioxide since the dawn of humankind, according to researchers from the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Observations made May 15 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii detected just over 415 parts per million of CO2, a level scientists say the planet hasn’t seen in about 3 million years. The rate of increase of CO2 is also accelerating. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the global growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the 1960s was roughly 0.6 ppm per year. Over the past decade, however, the rate has jumped to around 2.3 ppm per year, and may only continue to increase. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are correlated with global temperature rise, keeping tabs on the carbon budget allows scientists to gage our progress — or lack thereof — towards meeting temperature targets. “[A]t this point, we are doing a terrible job,” said Pieter Tans, head of NOAA’s Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases Group. (Scientific American)

• While it doesn’t get the attention that carbon dioxide does, in part because it doesn’t linger in the atmosphere for nearly as long, methane is also a worrisome greenhouse gas, because it has far more heat-trapping potential while it’s around. And that’s why a recent surge in atmospheric methane concentrations, which began around 2007, has scientists both scratching their heads and scrambling to figure out what’s causing it. The suspected culprits for the rising emissions range from the human-driven — leaky natural gas operations, landfill decomposition, livestock belching, certain forms of agriculture — to the natural: wetlands, rivers and lakes, wildfires, geological seeps, thawing permafrost and even the work of termites. Though no agreement has been reached on a definitive source, scientific suspicions are coalescing around tropical wetlands, which release the gas as part of a natural decomposition process. If that is the case, it could suggest that a worrisome feedback loop has been entered, in which a warming planet causes natural methane seeps to accelerate, which in turn leads to yet more planetary warming. It’s too soon to make that call, but researchers say getting to the bottom of the methane mystery is crucial. “The most important science question we face now is the question of carbon-climate feedbacks,” one researcher told Undark. “The question that’s really important is, what’s coming down the road?” (Undark)

• And finally: This week, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to pass a measure banning the use of facial recognition technology by its police force and other municipal agencies. The legislation requires departments to disclose any facial recognition technology currently in use, and request approval from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors for any future devices that collect or store people’s facial data. “This is really about saying we can have security without being a security state,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the legislation’s architect. “We can have good policing without being a police state.” But Supervisor Catherine Stefani told The San Francisco Chronicle she worries the mandate could bog down city agencies with extra work and might prevent them from accessing useful crime-solving technology in the future. Several cities, including Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts, have discussed similar bans, as policymakers grapple with regulating a technology both full of potential and ripe for abuse. (The San Francisco Chronicle)