If the initial draft majority opinion leaked from the Supreme Court earlier this month is to be believed, Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 case that established the right for a pregnant person to obtain an abortion in the US without undue interference – is soon to be overturned in US law.
It’s a decision that has angered millions and caused protests across the country in support of abortion rights. But for one British scientist, the case hits strangely close to home – not because of the arguments made by the anti-abortion side, but because of the studies they used to support it. His studies.
“There isn’t much more I can do to stop people claiming my work says something it doesn’t,” University College London neuroscientist Giandomenico Iannetti told The Guardian. He’s the author of a couple of papers, one from 2010 and the other from 2016, cited in a controversial 2020 British Medical Journal discussion paper considering the existence of fetal pain before 24 weeks' gestation.
That time limit is important because it’s the lower limit on when the cerebral cortex and thalamocortical tracts become functional – two features that neuroscientists generally think are necessary for feeling pain. But in their BMJ article, authors Stuart Derbyshire and John Bockmann wrote a passing remark that “the necessity of the cortex for pain experience may have been overstated.”
Their references for this claim included both of Iannetti’s papers – a link which he calls “an unjustified leap” on their part.
“My results by no means imply that the cortex isn’t necessary to feel pain. I feel they were misinterpreted and used in a very clever way to prove a point,” Iannetti told the Guardian. “It distresses me that my work was misinterpreted and became one of the pillar arguments [the lawyers] made.”
Among the scientific community, it should be said that the consensus is with Iannetti. “There is no rational basis for arguing a fetus can suffer pain before 24 weeks,” Vania Apkarian, director of the Centre for Translational Pain Research at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, who has spent two decades studying pain in humans and animals, told the Guardian.
“The anatomy of the brain is not formed enough for that to be possible,” he said. “The fetus is in an essentially sleep-like state in the womb.”
And Apkarian should know: he wrote the scientific briefing for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in the original Mississippi case that started this whole thing. That meant he had to become familiar with all the scientific references from the anti-abortion side, and he spent months checking to make sure no piece of serious evidence had been missed. It hadn’t.
“The Mississippi case claimed that the fetus, when aborted, is suffering. They claimed that because it is such an emotionally highly laden statement. But it is also totally untrue,” he told The Guardian.
We won’t sugarcoat it: if Roe v Wade falls – as currently looks likely – it will be a profoundly anti-scientific decision. But anti-abortion campaigners don’t usually admit that – which is why the draft opinion talked about “a series of factual findings” that “support” banning or restricting abortion access.
But those “factual findings” include tidbits like “at five or six weeks’ gestational age an ‘unborn human beings heart begins beating’”. It doesn’t – fetuses don’t even have a heart to beat at that point, which is why so-called "heartbeat bills" are so misleading.
It also claims that “only six countries besides the United States ‘per mitted nontherapeutic or elective abortion-on-demand after the twentieth week of gestation” – a cursory glance reveals at least eight or nine countries since Colombia relaxed its abortion laws this February – and more if you include countries like the UK or Japan, where abortion is restricted so loosely that it is, in practice, available on demand; and that “most abortions after fifteen weeks employ ‘dilation and evacuation procedures which involve the use of surgical instruments to crush and tear the unborn child’” – D&E procedures primarily rely on suction to remove the pregnancy – but even if they didn’t, would you usually refer to surgery as a doctor “crushing” or “tearing” a person open?
Iannetti, for his part, has helped US academics draft a response to the anti-abortion lawyers – but whether they take it to heart remains to be seen. After all, when the standard of scientific objectivity is already so low, can we really expect them to embrace peer review?