As the House of Representatives gears up for Tuesday’s debate on HR 1797, a bill that would outlaw virtually all abortions 20 weeks post fertilization, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) argued in favor of banning abortions even earlier in pregnancy because, he said, male fetuses that age were already, shall we say, spanking the monkey.
“Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful,” said Burgess, a former OB/GYN. “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 believe that they could feel pain?”
That observation led Burgess to say he had argued for the abortion ban to start at a much earlier stage of gestation, 15 or 16 weeks. (This is less than halfway through a pregnancy.) He appeared to liken Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, to the 1893 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that formally legalized racial segregation, and was not fully reversed until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The rationale for the Republican bill, which advanced through the House Judiciary last week on a near-total party-line vote, is one scientifically disputed study, touted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) in his opening remarks at today’s Rules Committee hearing, that asserts fetuses can feel pain as early as 20 weeks after sperm meets egg.
“Well, I think all the members are cognizant of the fact that this is not a Congress that cares much about science,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the Rules Committee’s ranking member, in her questioning of Goodlatte, who refuted that claim by saying that since 1973, the year when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, much more had been learned about fetal development.
Major medical bodies in the United States and the United Kingdom have refuted the claim of fetal pain before the third trimester.
The 20-week abortion ban, if passed into law, would set up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, which allows abortion up to the point of fetal viability outside the womb, and mandates exceptions for abortions in the case of pregnancies that threaten the life or health of the woman.
When first drafted, the 20-week ban was meant to apply only to the District of Columbia, over which Congress has a great deal of control. But with the arrest and murder conviction of Kermit Gosnell, who ran an illegal abortion clinic in Philadelphia, right-wing forces have sought to use justifiable public revulsion at Gosnell’s actions to further restrict women’s rights—and in contradiction to the common right-wing assertion of state sovereignty.