Let's get one thing straight: The American Medical Association says there is little to no evidence that a fetus feels pain before the third trimester. But this hasn't stopped nine states from passing "fetal pain" abortion legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks (or earlier) based on this scientifically dubious concept.
The latest is a law in Arizona to take effect on August 2nd banning abortions 18 weeks after fertilization, the earliest time limit in the nation and two weeks earlier than the other states with fetal pain laws: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Still, the concept of fetal pain is cringe-worthy. And it made me wonder, if a fetus could feel pain before the third trimester, might that change a pro-choice person's view on abortion? Would it change mine?
Personally, I had never heard of the fetal pain theory until I read Allison Yarrow's piece in the Daily Beast about President Reagan's connection to fetal pain. President Reagan exposed the then-little-known medical concept to a wide audience during a speech to the Annual Convention of Religious Broadcasters in 1984, using the fetal pain argument to promote abortion restrictions. The debate was kindled further by a film released the same year called The Silent Scream in which an abortion is narrated "from the victim's perceptive."
Now, 30 years later, lawmakers in states across the nation are still using the fetal pain theory to pass restrictive abortion legislation.
Using dubious science to promote reproductive restrictions is troublesome. Just as with required counseling, waiting periods and Virginia's mandatory ultrasound bill signed earlier this year, disguising anti-choice bills under a veil of health concerns is an underhanded way to restrict a woman's right to choose.
Do lawmakers actually believe, despite medical evidence, that a fetus under 20 weeks can feel pain? Uncertain. But there is no mistaking that the official opinion of these states is that fetuses do, indeed, feel pain, and need legal protection for that pain. The laws are explicitly clear in their purpose. Nebraska's law declares its objective is "to protect pain-capable unborn children," and that "the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult human, for example, by recoiling."
Fetal pain legislation affects a minute percentage of abortions; only 1.4 percent are performed at or after 21 weeks. But since this is currently the law for millions of women in this country, I believe it is worth questioning whether the fetal pain argument, if true, would even be valid to restrict reproductive rights. Even if a fetus could not survive on its own, does the ability to feel pain make it more in need of legal protection than if it couldn't? If you still supported abortion rights, would you want anesthesia for the fetus before the procedure?
Protecting the rights, health and economic opportunities of American women would still take precedence for me if fetal pain were real. But the medical fact is that fetal pain is, in all likelihood, not real. And until lawmakers stop using any means necessary to restrict abortion rights and start accepting medical science, fetal pain is a dangerous political instrument American women must start seriously fighting against to protect their rights.