Ohio promotes pseudoscience and harms its most vulnerable women by banning abortions at 20 weeks

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Image via Michael Vadon under Creative Commons 2.0

Ohio Govenor John Kasich vetoed the 6-week abortion ban based on a fetal heartbeat, but accepted the 20-week abortion ban based on fetal pain. While the 6-week ban would have been absurd, the 20 week ban is also horrible.

First off, this bill is based entirely on pseudoscience. I provided scientific testimony against South Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban that also claimed fetuses could feel pain. Here are a few excerpts from my testimony as it also applies to Ohio’s new law:

The main support for this bill stems from research that fetuses can react to stimuli at around 20 weeks of development. However, the scientific consensus is that such reactions to stimuli are reflexive, not a response to pain.

In other words, just because fetuses react with reflexes we associate with pain does not mean they feel pain. As Dr. Anand noted in his report in support of a similar bill, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience…” The current scientific evidence supports the conclusion that fetuses can have unpleasant sensory experiences. It does not, however, support the psychological claim that these experiences are emotional. In other words, fetuses do not feel pain.

Dr. Mark Rosen, pain researcher and anesthesiologist, concludes that such reactions are analogous to the reflex from a leg when tapped by a doctor’s rubber mallet. Also, any release of stress hormones during a reflex would not necessarily indicate the experience of pain, since elevations of stress hormones also occur in the bodies of brain-dead patients during organ harvesting. These findings do not reflect feeling pain; they only reflect a sufficiently intact nervous system.

Dr. Rosen also states how the pain signal must be able to travel from receptors located all over the body, to the spinal cord, up through the brain’s thalamus and finally into the cerebral cortex to be felt. He then notes how fetuses do not have nerve fibers which extend from the thalamus and have penetrated the cortex until the third trimester which is supported in a 2010 review paper of fetal development.

An extensive review paper on fetal pain was published in the Journal of the American Medical Associationby Dr. Lee and colleagues in 2005. It remains the best available systematic multidisciplinary review on the subject of fetal pain. These researchers concluded that “Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” They also note how pain is an emotional and psychological experience which requires conscious recognition of a noxious stimulus. So it is highly unlikely any pain can be felt by a fetus 24 weeks or earlier in pregnancy.

Furthermore, a study by Dr. Fabrizi and colleagues in 2011 revealed that the necessary neural circuits to differentiate pain from sensation are not developed in infants until 35 weeks of age. The younger infant’s neural signal indicated general tactile sensation, while the older infant’s neural signal indicated actual processing of pain from the sensation.

Even if fetuses could feel pain before 24 weeks, the placenta produces biochemicals which have a sedating and even an anesthetizing effect on the fetus according to a study by Dr. Mellor and colleagues in 2005. Thus, claims of fetuses feeling pain at or before 20 weeks represent the views of a minority of researchers with no psychological scientific training, and do not have widespread acceptance in the scientific community.

Beyond the pseudoscience in this bill, it also harms the most vulnerable women.

a 2013 study published in the Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health journal found that around one percent of abortions occur at 20 weeks or later. According to this same study, the women who had these rare abortions often had difficulty finding a provider and raising funds for the procedure and travel costs, were young and seeking work, or were dealing with an abusive partner.

The 20-week ban, which has sadly become law in several states, is based on junk science and hurts women who are already struggling. We must fight against it.

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