Health Care

The Senate Should Ban Abortions of Fetuses Who Can Feel Pain

Signs at the 2017 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
Nearly two-thirds of Americans support restrictions on late-term abortions. Democrats are ignoring them — and science.

The Senate will vote this evening on a bill to ban abortions beginning at 20 weeks’ gestation, based on research finding that fetuses at this age are able to feel pain. The House passed the bill in October; the last time the Senate considered similar legislation was in 2015, but due to a Democratic filibuster, it failed to reach the necessary 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a final vote.

In all likelihood, this bill will also fail to get 60 votes, because of the GOP’s razor-thin Senate majority. The radical pro-abortion lobby has such a firm hold on the Democratic party that too few of its senators will dare to cross the aisle and vote for this eminently humane legislation. Those who do will deserve high praise. (Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for one, has confirmed to National Review that he plans to support the legislation.)

This debate demonstrates exactly how far the Left has managed to push the goalposts on abortion — our Congress is arguing not over whether women should have the right to dispense with their unwanted unborn children but over whether those children should be spared death by dismemberment when they are capable of feeling pain.

To oppose this bill’s restraint on unlimited abortion access, the hard Left has had to disguise some crucial facts. In contrast to their claims, this bill is not an “extreme restriction” on reproductive rights. Indeed, the U.S. is currently one of only seven countries — along with China and North Korea — that allow elective abortions after 20 weeks. Twenty weeks’ gestation, after all, is the same as five months. These are not the early-stage abortions so often dismissed by abortion-rights activists as insignificant or akin to getting a haircut. These are invasive procedures that involve lethally injecting and dismembering highly developed fetuses. More and more frequently, fetuses at this stage of development are able to survive and thrive after premature birth.

Strangely, abortion-rights proponents spend very little energy addressing the scientifically proven fact that these fetuses can feel pain. Embryology shows that the fetal nervous system is established by six weeks’ gestation. Sensory receptors for pain begin to develop as early as ten weeks. Connections between the spinal cord and the thalamus — which facilitate pain perception in both fetuses and adults — are present at 20 weeks’ gestation.

As early as six weeks after fertilization, fetuses exhibit reflex movement during invasive procedures and hormonal stress responses as early as 16 weeks into pregnancy. Two independent studies in 2006 examined fetal brain scans and found a “clear cortical response” to painful stimuli, concluding that there was “the potential for both higher-level pain processing and pain-induced plasticity in the human brain from a very early age.”

The Left gives none of these facts the attention they deserve. Instead, abortion advocates brush them aside with weak claims that we can’t know for sure that every fetus feels the same level of pain during abortion, so we therefore can’t justify any restriction of a woman’s right to choose.

Maternal-health complications are not the reason that most women choose abortion.

Likewise, these late-term abortions are rarely “medically necessary,” as progressives wish us to believe. Most often, studies show, women choose abortion later in pregnancy because of a delay in fetal diagnosis and for reasons similar to those of early-abortion patients: financial stress, relationship problems, education concerns, or parenting challenges. In other words, maternal-health complications are not the reason that most women choose abortion.

Abortion-rights activists refuse to acknowledge that a substantial majority of Americans favor legally restricting late-term abortions. A Marist poll just this month found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support a 20-week abortion ban, including over half of Democrats and over half of pro-choice respondents — percentages that have risen since this time last year.

What’s more, a poll from just after the presidential election found that over half of voters in swing states would be less likely to vote for their incumbent senator if he or she opposed a 20-week abortion ban.

And yet, the Democratic party appears poised to disregard the wishes of these Americans and ignore basic embryological science. Perhaps their willful ignorance has something to do with the copious money Planned Parenthood and NARAL pour into in politics, not to mention the threat of retaliation from those same powerful lobbying groups.

The Democratic party appears poised to disregard the wishes of most Americans and ignore basic embryological science.

If this legislation is defeated, it will be a significant blow to the pro-life movement. But even a failed vote will succeed in forcing lawmakers out from behind the euphemisms of the abortion debate. Those who vote against this bill have two unpleasant options: They can deny the reality of dangerous late-term abortionists such as Kermit Gosnell, or they can accept that horrific reality as the cost of protecting the right to unlimited abortion on demand.

Any lawmaker who opposes this bill cannot rightly be called “pro-choice,” cannot hide behind the gauzy defenses of bodily autonomy and clumps of cells. To support these late-term, elective procedures is to be pro-abortion. The Democratic party of “safe, legal, and rare” is never coming back.


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