Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, quoted some questionable claims Tuesday about fetal pain during a hearing on the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that would ban abortion after 20 weeks – the time when science increasingly suggests unborn children feel pain.
In her opening remarks, Sen. Feinstein called the legislation “unnecessary and divisive,” arguing that it was “focused on overturning the constitutional rights of women.”
She went on to quote an organization called the "American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists" (ACOG) referring to them as “the premier, professional organization.”
“A human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after viability,” she quoted from their statement on the matter. “Rigorous scientific studies have found that the connections necessary to transmit signals from peripheral sensory nerve to the brain as well as the brain structures necessary to process those signals do not develop until at least 24 weeks of gestation because it lacks these connections and structures, the fetus does not even have the physiological capacity to perceive pain until at least 24 weeks gestation.”
That statement, which Feinstein entered into the record, cited two studies, one from 2010 and an interdisciplinary review from 2005, for proof of its assertion that the unborn child cannot feel pain until after 24 weeks.
However, in the past few years many have pointed out that with improvements in technology premature babies have been surviving birth as early as 21 weeks. Recent studies have supported revisiting when fetal viability begins, given the earlier survival rates.
Micah Pickering, a boy born at 20 weeks of pregnancy, was obviously viable since he did survive birth and was able to advocate for the legislation on Capitol Hill.
Based on Micah’s case and others, the New York Times wrote in 2015, that a “study, of thousands of premature births, found that a tiny minority of babies born at 22 weeks who were medically treated survived with few health problems, although the vast majority died or suffered serious health issues. Leading medical groups had already been discussing whether to lower the consensus on the age of viability, now cited by most medical experts as 24 weeks.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) brought up Micah’s case during the hearing. However, Feinstein did not address the instance of a child surviving birth before 24 weeks when she had just cited a claim that they could not even feel pain at that point.
Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) and an OB-GYN, testified that it was a “scientific fact” that the unborn child can feel pain at 20 weeks.
“It is scientific fact that 20 week babies are very sensitive to pain, they react the same way that you do,” she said. “They withdraw from painful stimuli, they release stress hormones, their heart rate increases and their breathing increases, these are measurable changes under pain. The structures which transmit painful stimuli from the skin to the brain are present very early in fetal life and anesthesiologists for the last decade have used fetal anesthesia as a standard of care for in utero fetal surgery.”
She entered AAPLOG’s fact sheet on the matter into the record which cited an array of studies.
Harrison also pointed out to the committee that ACOG, which Feinstein had previously quoted, was not an unbiased source on the issue and did not represent the views of the majority of OB-GYNs.
“I have to say a word about ACOG,” she said, “they are specifically a pro-abortion activist organization. They do not represent OB-GYNs on this issue, they’ve polled their membership and 85 percent of OGYNs do not do abortion so ACOG is out of step with their rabid pro-abortion activism and I just want to make that point because they’re being quoted in this committee as though they are an independent, unbiased scientific opinion and they’re not, by their own admission.”
ACOG states on their website that “safe, legal abortion is a necessary component of women’s health care.”
Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy at the ACOG, acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times in February that many physicians in her specialty, like many Americans, “have different concepts of when an embryo or fetus becomes a viable life.” She called it “a deeply personal decision” that affects an OB-GYN’s decisions about providing abortion services.