Twenty-Week Abortion Bans: An Attack on Reproductive Rights


On September 22nd, the Senate voted down the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”  This proposed bill—which relies on scientifically tenuous evidence—asserts that 20-week-old fetuses have the ability to feel pain.  However, many organizations and individuals within the medical community oppose this bill.  For instance, Kathy D. Hartke, M.D., of the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, issued a statement arguing that 20-week abortion bans would “interfere with the patient-physician relationship.”  And the Physicians for Reproductive Health states that bans on abortion after 20 weeks “serve only to create barriers to safe, legal abortion care.”

Additionally, scientific research on the presence of pain in 20-week-old fetuses complicates the premise of the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”  The Journal of the American Medical Association published a report in 2005 concluding that fetal pain perception likely does not occur before the third trimester.  

The research often cited to support 20-week abortion bans rests on the assumption that because fetuses can respond to stimuli at 20 weeks, they can necessarily feel pain at that time.  But there is no scientific consensus that this fetal response to stimuli signals the presence of pain.

Besides the shaky scientific evidence used to defend the bill, its legal basis has come under fire.  In May of 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Idaho’s ban on abortions after 20 or more weeks of pregnancy was unconstitutional.  Although other states have instituted bans on abortions during and after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the constitutionality of these measures is still a topic of debate.

Perhaps most concerning about this bill is the effect it would have on medical providers.  A 20-week ban would criminalize doctors and limit medical options available to patients.  Despite the fact that approximately 99% of abortions take place before 21 weeks, abortions later in pregnancy often involve rare fetal anomalies or risks to the mother’s health.  The bill did provide exceptions to the ban in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life.  But the wording for these exceptions was vague, possibly undermining a woman’s ability to make important reproductive health decisions.  According to Senator Susan Collins, a doctor performing an abortion after 20 weeks in order to save the mother from serious injury could face up to five years in prison under this bill.  The “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” did not fully take into account the extenuating circumstances of the pregnancy or the mother’s health.

The introduction of the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” signals a dire attack on women’s autonomy over their own bodies.  In the wake of the Planned Parenthood video releases, it seems that the issue of abortion has come to the fore.  The conservative group Center for Medical Progress produced a series of heavily and misleadingly edited videos which falsely portrayed Planned Parenthood as an organization which sells fetal specimens for profit.  Consistently, opponents of abortion have relied on faulty evidence to support their claims.  

Relying on poor evidence can lead to severe outcomes.  Defunding Planned Parenthood—which uses 97% of its funding to provide women and men with important, non-abortion related medical services—will negatively affect those in need of affordable health care.  In the wake of the Planned Parenthood video releases, several members of the Republican Party have threatened to shut down the government if Planned Parenthood is not defunded. Fortunately, the Senate voted against defunding Planned Parenthood. However, the House has yet to vote. Although the resignation of John Boehner, speaker of the House, makes a government shutdown less likely, it is still unclear what the result of the House vote on September 30th will be.

These recent attempts to rob women of their reproductive rights alarm me.  Banning abortions at 20 weeks criminalizes doctors and limits a woman’s medical options, preventing her from choosing the medical care that will be best for her.  And defunding Planned Parenthood will prohibit women and men from exercising the ability to receive income-adjusted, affordable medical care.  Depriving U.S. citizens of basic reproductive rights and health care is unacceptable.  Women’s reproductive rights must be recognized, and it will take our continuous efforts to make sure they are continuously protected.  

Michelle Torby

University of Michigan
English Language and Literature, 2016


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