Roe versus Wade – one of the most significant Supreme Court rulings in American history – is to be repealed, a leaked draft opinion obtained by Politico reveals. Debate surrounding Roe v Wade, and abortion more generally, involves questions of values and law, but is also informed by questions that have been scientifically investigated. The leaked draft gets some of this wrong
Two-thirds of Americans support Roe v Wade, a figure that has been relatively stable since it was passed in 1973, decreeing that the right to choose whether to proceed with a pregnancy fell within the Right to Privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, most states with Republican legislatures and governors have passed bills that contradict Roe v Wade or are in the process of doing so. The Supreme Court is ruling on the constitutionality of one from Mississippi.
Much of the division about abortion centers on the question of how we value bodily autonomy and reproductive rights versus that of a potential child to be born. Legal and constitutional questions particular to each country come into it as well.
Opponents of legalized abortion frequently make, or imply, things that can be scientifically tested in the course of their arguments. The leaked draft makes reference to the assertion Mississippi legislators have “found that at five or six weeks' gestational age an 'unborn human being's heart begins beating'”. Although the legislation in question allows abortion until week 15 of pregnancy, many states only allow six weeks under these so-called “heartbeat acts”.
Yet there is no heart – and therefore no heartbeat – detectable at this stage. Instead, a group of cells that will subsequently control heartbeat timing start sending out electrical signals at six weeks. Advances in ultrasound have allowed doctors to detect these signals, something impossible until quite recently. Few gynecologists consider this a heartbeat – it can even occur in fetuses that never go on to form a functioning heart.
It's common to claim that aborted fetuses suffer pain in the procedure, emphasized by the name of the anti-abortion propaganda film Silent Scream. Yet the overwhelming majority of abortions in America (and elsewhere) are performed during the first trimester. At this point, the fetus is a long way short of having a developed nervous system capable of registering pain.
Another question that can be tested scientifically is how those who have abortions feel about the decision afterward. Inevitably, with tens of millions having undergone procedures to terminate their pregnancies, some later think they made the wrong decision, or struggle with the stigma around the procedure. Those who go public about this get their voices amplified with an implication, or actual statement, that this is the norm – however, studies reveal five years later, 95 percent think they made the right decision
Efforts to ban abortion also usually misrepresent the risks of either having an abortion or giving birth. Births in America carry much higher risks than in any other wealthy country, with around 700 deaths a year.
Anti-abortion legislation would sometimes even prosecute in the case of miscarriage, implying a deep misunderstanding of the rate at which wanted human pregnancies fail. Between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage in the US, although that could be up to half of all pregnancies as many miscarry before they know they are pregnant.
One draft piece of state legislation even sought to ban the termination of ectopic pregnancies. These occur when the fetus implants in a part of the body other than the womb, usually the fallopian tubes. These can never result in the birth of a living child, and without medical intervention usually lead to the death of the pregnant individual. A conversation with anyone who has studied anatomy might have cleared this up.
Finally, every argument for banning abortion carries with it the implication that such legislation will reduce the number of abortions performed. Although this makes intuitive sense, abortion rates today are similar to when it was illegal in most states. Social scientists and epidemiologists have studied the factors that influence abortion rates extensively and their conclusions are clear: Access to contraception and quality sex education is much more important than the legality of the procedure.
Bills like the one Mississippi passed don't make for many fewer abortions, but they certainly make for fewer safe ones.