About seven weeks ago, when it was rumored that Rep. Andy Mayberry was going to file a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, I wrote a post explaining the likely problems with such a bill. Mayberry has now filed HB 1887, which is pretty much exactly what my first post expected it to be. While the unconstitutional stuff in my first post still stands — nothing in Mayberry’s bill changes that analysis appreciably — I’ve realized in the time between the first post and now that the more salient issue is the hypocrisy of this conservative embrace of science. So, with that in mind, the rest of this post is a slightly re-worked version of the science-related argument from the original post.
Broadly speaking, HB 1887 and bills similar to it filed in other states are based on studies like the one by Kanwaljeet “Sunny” Anand, director of the Pain Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. (I say this because a quick Google search for “fetus 20 weeks pain” turned up Anand’s study more than once in conjunction with the Nebraska law banning abortions after 20 weeks.)
Here’s the thing: while it is entirely possible that Anand and his team are correct, there is nothing even approaching a scientific consensus on this point. One need not look very hard to find other studies on the issue such those by psychologist and fetal pain expert Stuart Derbyshire at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, which suggests that 26 weeks is the earliest that a fetus could experience pain. There’s also a study by the director of Obstetrical Anesthesia at the University of California—San Francisco, Mark Rosen, in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005, which suggested that fetuses are not capable of feeling pain until at least 29 weeks into pregnancy.
The data and studies on this issue cover a fairly wide range, yet conservatives such as Mayberry are latching on to the one that they like the best, while ignoring the rest. Worse, they are latching on to a very small sliver of the available research, while ignoring more numerous studies, simply because the small sample gives them the best results. This is a perversion of science. But the perversion masks a larger truth: science really has no place in this debate. This is a religious and philosophical debate only.
Let me put it this way: would you expect Republicans to weaken their anti-abortion stance if a study found that fetuses did not feel any pain? Of course not, because the anti-choice Republican argument is not based on science or reason; it is based on a religious perspective. Thus, if you are starting from the premise that God does not want abortions, then anything that the fetus does or does not feel in utero is moot. Sure, it might make someone feel even more strongly about his existing anti-abortion stance, but that’s neither important in this discussion nor is it persuasive in the debate (unless perhaps those same conservatives are also willing to concede that, for example, the fact that homosexuals would feel better if they were allowed to marry somehow strengthens the argument for gay marriage).
Simply put, if you hold a position that no amount of science could dissuade you from believing, then scientific evidence has no place in a debate in favor of your side of the issue. Attempting to shoehorn it into your argument this late in the game is just an effort to move the goalposts a little. Worse, it’s cowardly, in that it hopes people will believe science and ascribe to your belief even where you would not buy scientific evidence to the opposite effect.
Worse still, the hypocrisy inherent in this Republican embrace of a little bit of scientific evidence is staggering. We are talking about (some) members of a party who deny the existence of evolution and seek to undermine its educational value, despite the overwhelming acceptance of the theory by millions of scientists in every imaginable field of study, simply because evolution does not comport with how Republicans want to believe the world to be. This is a party with members who deny the existence of man-made climate change, despite the fact that the scientific community is generally in accord that it exists, simply because man-made climate change would suggest that man had the ability to ruin something that God created specifically for man to use. It’s a party comprised in part of people who deny any biological bases for homosexuality, despite the fact that certain biological links have been located (and despite the logical flaw inherent in suggesting that homosexuality is a choice while heterosexuality is not), because that science might hamper their ability to promote their own bigoted vision of morality on others. It is a party with many members who deny the existence of a Big Bang, despite the fact that every reputable physicist in the world ascribes to some form of the Big Bang theory.
It is, quite literally, a party that has purposefully ignored science at every turn. Yet now, in an area where there is nowhere near the consensus present in these other issues, they are willing to cling to a study as somehow supporting their Biblical-morality-based position on abortion. They are attempting to use science in a non-scientific way to support a non-scientific political position.
To quote Henri Poincare, “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” If you are opposed to abortion, that’s your prerogative. It’s a political, social, religious, and philosophical issue on which you and I happen to disagree. It’s not a scientific issue, however, no matter how many stones you throw onto the heap.