Texas Right to Life Pushes More Bunk Science on "Preborn Pain," Calls Observer "Anti-Life"

Over the past couple months, we've brought you periodic updates on Texas Right to Life's quest to help pass a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks. They've finally found a sponsor to carry that bill: State Representative Jodie Laubenberg filed the "Preborn Pain Act" this time last week. Texas Right to Life and the bill's other supporters -- including Governor Rick Perry -- make the assertion that fetuses are able to feel pain at 20 weeks.

The thing about that claim is that it's not true (we'll get into the voluminous evidence for that again in a moment). The second thing about that claim is that "fetal pain" legislation --- much like "personhood" legislation that tries to claim that life begins at fertilization -- is part of an ongoing attempt to ban abortion by inches. Which, as Perry keeps saying publicly, is exactly the point: to make abortion "a thing of the past."

A recent -- article? Press release? Not sure what to call this thing -- says the the Observer (that's us) is part of the "anti-Life" media. Apparently we're "predictably attacking" them while ignoring the scientific evidence.

Let's get right into that scientific evidence, shall we?

"Numerous scientific studies and physicians recognize that preborn children feel torturous pain from abortion by 20 weeks gestation, if not earlier," writes Texas Right to Life. (Nobody has signed the article.) "Contrary to the Observer's ludicrous claim that the reality of fetal pain is based on a study from 1987 that has been 'debunked,' ample recent evidence from the scientific community supports the bill."

Some background: "Preborn pain" bills banning abortion after either 20 or 22 weeks have been passed in eight states so far: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Many of these bills, like Texas', borrow liberally from language originally written by influential pro-life lobby group Americans United for Life. The one study AUL likes to cite to support their fetal pain claims is indeed from 1987. Here they are, citing it in the model legislation, which they termed the "Women's Health Defense Act." It claims that abortions are too dangerous for women after 20 weeks (not true), and even if they weren't, the fetus would be able to feel pain, and so abortions after that point should summarily be banned.

OK, Texas Right to Life. Let's take the 1987 study off the table for a moment and have a look at some of the other evidence you cite to support fetal pain, shall we? Let's not look at the Journal of the American Medical Association's comprehensive 2005 study, which found that "the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks." Let's also not look at this joint study by researchers from Harvard Law and Harvard Medical School, which calls fetal pain at 20 weeks a "speculative" claim. It adds that even if fetal pain at 20 weeks proved true -- a big if -- existing Supreme Court precedent makes it clear that this wouldn't be enough to make a 20-week ban constitutional. Also, please don't look at this one, from a 2011 volume of Current Biology, which found that the neural circuits "necessary for discrimination between touch and nociception emerge from 35-37 weeks gestation in the human brain." (Nociception is the neural process of deciphering "noxious stimuli," meaning pain.)

Instead of looking at all that actual and current science, let's follow the link that Texas Right to Life provides, which claims to show "dozens" of peer-reviewed studies proving that fetal pain at 20 weeks is an inarguable fact. The link leads us to a skeletal webpage called Doctors on Fetal Pain . Instead of linking to full studies, the page cherry-picks information to support its claims. Again, some of the studies they cite here are alarmingly old: from 1987 (the same study the AUL uses, once again), 1980, and even 1964. And all of the evidence they cite only shows that pain receptors begin to develop in the fetus before 20 weeks. But the neural pathways fetuses actually need to feel pain? Those aren't present until at least 24 weeks at the very, very earliest.

Need yet more evidence? This excellent Mother Jones piece on the myth of fetal pain links to, among other studies, one done in 2010 by the UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. They recommend against using anesthesia on fetuses in operations before 24 weeks, because the fetus " cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation." In that same piece, Mother Jones speculates that the whole point of enacting fetal pain laws in the first place is to push an inevitable lawsuit towards the Supreme Court, with the idea that the balance has shifted on the court towards stricter anti-abortion laws.

It's not surprising that Texas Right to Life routinely uses old science and willfully misunderstood data. They seem determined to get safe, legal abortion banned by any means necessary, along with birth control, emergency contraception and accurate sex ed, no matter how many hysterical half-truths and outright lies about pain and danger they have to push. It's worth noting that these are the same people who recently claimed that abortion providers are prowling the halls of your kid's school, trying to goad them into having sex so they can make money off the abortion. And TRL director Elizabeth Graham recently referred to lawmakers who are trying to restore family planning funds as "a coven."

When you see witches in the hallways of the Legislature and abortionists hiding under your kid's desk, understanding science is probably the least of your problems.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan