By Rev. Kate Braestrup
Hello, Dear [Pro-Choice] Friends!
The US House of Representatives recently voted for a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. It is called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. You can read the text of the bill here.
Perhaps y’all have, like me, been receiving calls for action — Contact Your Senator! — from pro-choice organizations about this bill? I would urge you to give careful thought to this issue. However, I strongly believe that anyone who is Pro-Choice (as I am) needs to be at least as well-informed about what abortion actually is…as a Right to Lifer.
The following are some facts I think we need to know:
First, that “pain-capable” thing: Whether a twenty-week fetus is able to experience pain the way an adult does is debatable and debated. Medically speaking, pain is difficult to measure in anyone (compared to, say, oxygen blood levels) and is especially hard to quantify in someone or something that can’t speak.
For that matter, pain is difficult even to define: the article linked above, from the Journal of the American Medical Association, defines pain as an emotional and psychological state. The authors can therefore take the the medically conservative view that a 20-week fetus does not fulfill all the neurological criteria for pain as it is perceived by a fully developed human being. Therefore fetal pain need not be considered (or mentioned) when it comes to abortion.
Do fish feel pain? Fishermen tend to judge this differently from members of PETA. One can debate whether frogs feel pain. There are neurological criteria by which this is judged, as it happens, but the bar for frogs is set somewhat lower than JAMA sets it for fetuses:
These fulfilled criteria include a suitable nervous system and sensory receptors, opioid receptors and reduced responses to noxious stimuli when given analgesics and local anaesthetics, physiological changes to noxious stimuli, displaying protective motor reactions, exhibiting avoidance learning and making trade-offs between noxious stimulus avoidance and other motivational requirements.
All but the last — avoidance learning and trade-offs — are also demonstrated in 20-week-old fetuses. (See the JAMA article again.) So, presumably, a 20-week fetus feels pain at least as much as a frog does.
Twenty weeks is just about four and a half months. Here is a link to a video showing what an abortion procedure at 20 weeks looks like. It’s animated, not live-action, but if you aren’t eager to look at even an animation of a 20-week abortion, I don’t blame you. I wasn’t either. Still, that reluctance is, in itself, demonstrative of something, isn’t it? And no, I don’t believe I would be as squeamish about watching an animated film showing an appendectomy or a hip replacement.
Okay, but aren’t these late term abortion procedures really rare? And mostly done in response to a diagnosis of catastrophic medical problems in either the baby or the mother?
To begin with, while it is true that the vast majority of abortions are done in the first trimester, second and third trimester abortions are not as rare as we might wish to think. Even if the number of 20-week-plus abortions is no more than 1% or 2% of the total, still, according to the CDC, this adds up to between 10,000 and 15,000 such procedures every year in the United States (or 35 a day), performed on fetuses that cannot possibly be described as “a blob of cells.”
Whether there are medical issues or not, at least some of these, and perhaps all of them, will be done without anesthesia on fetuses capable of experiencing pain.
Meanwhile, a Guttmacher Institute study (Guttmacher is affiliated with Planned Parenthood, and is not a pro-life organization) found that women who choose late term abortion are by and large not doing so for medical reasons. Rather, they name the same reasons cited for early abortion (primarily relationship failure and financial problems).
Incidentally, in general, European countries (Denmark, Sweden, France, Italy) are far more restrictive of abortion rights than the U.S.. In most, the cut-off for elective abortion is 12 weeks. In seven states in the U.S. (plus the District of Columbia) there are no gestational age limits for abortion. In other words, a healthy woman can choose to abort a healthy 27- or 30-week-old fetus, one capable of life outside the uterus, for any reason at all.
But what about the medical catastrophes? CBS news had a headline story recently claiming the virtual elimination of Down syndrome from Iceland. It turned out that it wasn’t the syndrome that had been eliminated, but the people who have it: Iceland, along with other Scandinavian countries, has been testing for and selectively aborting Down Syndrome babies. (Icelandic abortion laws permit a woman to end her pregnancy after 16 weeks if the tests show that her baby will have a “deformity.”) Do we consider Down’s syndrome a medical catastrophe?
I would not lightly dismiss the concerns of parents overwhelmed at the idea of rearing a disabled child, especially if they are poor, or have their own health concerns or other burdens. And I am sympathetic to parents who worry that such child would suffer, especially if they don’t know any Down syndrome people personally.
I do. Indeed, if I were to suggest medical issues likely to cause suffering in life, Down syndrome wouldn’t be high on the list.
My experience accords with what was reported at NRO “…research shows that close to 100 percent of people with Down syndrome are happy and that close to 100 percent of their parents are glad they chose life for their children.” Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and deafness are all sources of at least as much difficulty and pain, for everyone involved. The lives of my loved ones thus afflicted are nevertheless very much worth living.
I am pro-choice because I believe that a human being has an absolute right to determine whether, how and for how long another human being may make use of her body.
However I don’t believe we have the right to be ignorant, to deliberately not know what exercising the right to bodily self-determination actually means.
Trusting women surely means trusting them with all the relevant information rather than encouraging denial.
If nothing else, perhaps we on the pro-choice side could be just a shade more willing to engage with, or at least express less open contempt, for the millions of pro-life Americans who look at these same facts and come to a different, difficult conclusion?
Copyright 2017 © Kate Braestrup