During his speech to the Susan B. Anthony List's annual Campaign for Life Gala, President Donald Trump rallied abortion opponents in Washington, telling them to take their beliefs to the polls so more Republican candidates could get into office. Trump's Susan B. Anthony gala speech touched on abortion, and in the course of his talk, the president pushed an unproven, controversial statistic about it.
"We're also seeking passage of the 20-week abortion bill, which would end painful, late-term abortions nationwide," said the president to a roomful of cheering supporters. "The House just passed the bill. The Democrats in the Senate are doing everything within their power to block it, although some are actually on our side, but they are working overtime to block it."
According to the New York Post, Trump is the first sitting president to address the Susan B. Anthony List anti-choice group. And his claim that an abortion at 20 weeks would be painful for the fetus is particularly controversial within the scientific community. According to FactCheck.org, an impartial Annenberg Public Policy Center project at the University of Pennsylvania, the "ability to feel pain at that specific point in gestation is unproven," primarily because of how limiting the statement is. FactCheck.org writes that scientific research on fetal pain is incredibly difficult and complicated because "pain is a subjective experience and a fetus cannot indicate if something hurts."
The debate over fetal pain at 20 weeks is not new. In 2016, Utah lawmakers began requiring those seeking an abortion at 20 weeks or more into a pregnancy to have anesthesia or painkillers for the fetus. This law drew the ire of some doctors in the Utah area, one of whom said, “You’re asking me to invent a procedure that doesn’t have any research to back it up ... You want me to experiment on my patients," according to the New York Times.
A popular 2005 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that fetuses most likely start to feel pain at 27 weeks, or the third trimester of pregnancy. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in 2013 that there was no new research to disprove that study, according to the Times.
Abortion rights activists and some doctors have said the law is scientifically unsound, the New York Times wrote, with many believing that a fetus' brain and nervous are not mature enough at 20 weeks old to process and feel pain. Most scientific discussions hit theoretical territory because so much about pain is unknown, according to the New York Times. The trouble lies in how a person determines fetal pain; some reaction in fetuses are simply reflexes or hormones, while other researchers say the ability to feel pain could come from consciousness.
There are doctors who agree that fetuses might be able to feel pain at the 20-week mark, but many also point out that the issue isn't of great relevance to abortion since most abortions happen way before 20 weeks. On top of that, doctors note that for the “very few” abortions that occur after that time, techniques could be used that he believed would prevent pain, according to the Times.
According to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control, less than 2 percent of abortions nationwide are performed after 20 weeks of gestation. FactCheck.org 's research on the stages of brain and nervous system development, essentially the pain processing center, has concluded "that a firm starting point for pain in the developing fetus is essentially impossible to pin down, and that definitive claims regarding pain perception at 20 weeks are unfounded. We take no position on the bill itself."
But it's unlikely that anyone pushing for these bans will pay much attention to these studies. Much of Trump's speech on Tuesday pushed the anti-choice crowd to vote in the midterm elections. A portion of his speech was up on Twitter right after.
According to Rewire, nearly two dozen states have enacted 20-week abortion bans: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Many of these states are where conservatives are hoping to win more Republican seats in the 2018 midterm election.