The House this week voted in favor of the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, whose name should immediately arouse suspicion. It passed 237-189, with almost all Democrats voting against it and almost all Republicans voting for it. So what exactly does it do?
The bill – which still has to make it through the Senate – seeks to outlaw abortions beyond 20 weeks, based on the idea that at this point onwards, the fetus can experience pain. Exceptions will be made in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is at serious risk. (In most developed countries, this limit is set at 24 weeks, primarily for safety reasons.)
As you might expect, the pro-life – or anti-abortion, really – right-leaning lawmakers, those that are likely to agree with the thought that “life begins at conception”, are very much against abortion in general. This bill, then, represents a useful step to them. To those that are pro-choice, this bill represents a dangerously regressive step.
House Majority Leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), said in a supportive statement back in September that this bill “will protect those children who science has proven can feel pain.” As pointed out by Vox, however, this is blatantly false: science has proven no such thing.
The study of the ability of fetuses to react to the environment around them – something known as prenatal perception – is a tricky subject to research, merely for technical reasons. However, all the best available evidence suggests that fetuses only experience pain long after 20 weeks.
Take your pick. You have a review published by the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 2005 that concluded that “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which is at the 27 to 28 week mark.
Then you have a 2010 report from the UK-based Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. It concluded that there’s no evidence that the cortex (outer layer of the cerebrum) and other parts of the body are not “wired up” before 24 weeks of pregnancy.
“As most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception,” the authors note, “it can be concluded that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation.”