06/19/2013 12:55 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

That Michael Burgess, Fetal Masturbation Thing That Happened? Science Has Weighed In

This week, as part of the global effort to turn this decade in American life into the one where it was impossible to say, "Now I've heard everything," Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) made the case against abortion rights on the grounds that fetuses masturbate. This is an actual thing that happened in the House Rules Committee, in America:

"This is a subject that I do know something about,” said Burgess, a former OB/GYN. "There is no question in my mind that a baby at 20 weeks after conception can feel pain. The fact of the matter is, I argue with the chairman because I thought the date was far too late. We should be setting this at 15 weeks, 16 weeks."

"Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful,” Burgess continued. “They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to think that they could feel pain?"

Naturally, we are now hearing from members of the scientific community on the whole matter of fetuses totally jacking it in utero. Here's Elizabeth Flock, at U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers" blog:

But Burgess's argument isn't based in science, doctors say.

"We certainly can see a movement of a fetus during that time, but in terms of any knowledge about pleasure or pain - there are no data to assess," says Jeanne Conry, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a professional association for OB/GYNs. "We don't know enough about the biology and the science."

Flock goes on to report: "Any media reports on masturbation by fetuses can almost exclusively be traced back to a single letter written by two OB/GYNs in Italy in 1996 and published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology." In the letter, Dr. Giorgio Giorgi, and Dr. Marco Siccardi note their observations:

We recently observed a female fetus at 32 weeks' gestation touching the vuvlva with fingers of [her] right hand. The caressing movement was centered primarily on the region of the clitoris. Movements stopped after 30 to 40 seconds, and started again after a few moments. Further, these light touches were repeated and were associated with short, rigid movements of the pelvis and legs. After another break, in addition to this behavior, the fetus contracted the muscles of the trunk and limbs, and the climax, clonicotonic movements [rapid muscle contractions] of the body, followed. Finally she relaxed and rested. We [several doctors and the mother] observed this behavior for about 20 minutes.

Well, it's not every day that a mother-to-be gets to watch something like that. It's really a pity that no one had invented Vine by 1996.

At any rate, Giorgi and Siccardi were very enthusiastic about this, writing, "Fetal masturbation? Female fetuses having orgasms? A resounding yes to both of these questions." (They also opine, "This represents some very bad news for the antimasturbation lobby," which is known as "the unhappiest lobby.") But, as Conry points out, one does not "base science on single observations."

Furthermore, as The Atlantic's Alexander Abad-Santos points out:

But [the] fetus [cited by Giorgi and Riccardi] was at 32 weeks, not 15 weeks, as Burgess cited. And at 32 weeks, fetuses are usually around 3.5 pounds. At 15 weeks, fetuses are around 4 inches long and weigh just a few ounces. Presuming the 1996 finding is the norm (and represents a big jump in itself), the research still doesn't give any credence to Burgess's already shocking don't abort fetuses because they're masturbating logic, because the fetus witnessed in 1996 was twice the age Burgess cited. Basically, the masturbating fetus argument does not help anything — and it may undermine Burgess's insistence that fetuses feel pain and pleasure at 15 weeks.

Never in my life did I even dare imagine that I would even know this much about the topic of fetal masturbation.

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