U.S. President Donald Trump is encouraging anti-abortion voters to show up to the polls in November with one goal in mind: Giving a national 20-week abortion ban another shot at passing Congress.
During his remarks at the Susan B. Anthony's List Campaign for Life Gala in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, the president brought up the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a legislation banning abortion at 20 weeks of gestation that passed the House last September but failed in the Senate earlier this year.
Trump said that Democratic senators were the ones to blame for killing the bill. He said: "The United States is one of only seven countries in the world to allow elective abortions after 20 weeks when unborn babies can truly feel the pain, yet Democratic senators like Jon Tester, Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill, Debbie Stabenow, all voted against the 20-week bill and in favour of late-term abortion."
He added, "We're nine votes away from passing the 20-week abortion bill in the Senate. We have to get them out there. The Democratic senators are up for re-election in 10 states that I won by a lot. I think we're doing very well."
Only 1.3% of all abortions in the United States take place after 20 weeks of gestation, according to a 2009 report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. But the reasons why women seek the procedure at that stage of a pregnancy can be complex and most medical professionals say politicians shouldn't have a say on whether women should have an abortion at that point.
"Many of these women are faced with pregnancies complicated by severe birth defects that can only be diagnosed at this stage of pregnancy. Other women are diagnosed with medical complications, such as cancer, where pregnancy can put their life at risk," Dr. Beverly Gray, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke University, told Refinery29. "Many teenagers don’t realize they are pregnant until the second trimester and often seek care later, especially if they are hesitant to disclose the news to their family. Because abortion after 20 weeks is more rare, there are fewer ob-gyns who provide this care, making it logistically difficult to find a doctor, which can also create delays."
While telling his supporters to vote out these senators in November, Trump also brought a familiar false claim: That fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks.
Dr. Daniel Grossman, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California at San Francisco and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, told Refinery29 earlier this year that existing scientific research disproves Trump's comments.
"The best available evidence indicates that it's not possible for a fetus at 20 or 22 weeks to feel pain. The neurofibrils that connect pain receptors to the cerebral cortex are not developed, and really don't develop until the third trimester — past 26 weeks," he said.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published in 2005 what it's considered to be the most comprehensive literature review on fetal pain to this day. The authors of the review said it's not until the third trimester when fetuses start developing the neurological wiring needed to feel pain. And when it comes to premature babies in particular, research has shown they're not able to feel pain until 29 or 30 weeks. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, "no research since its publication has contradicted its findings" in the past decade.
Grossman told Refinery29 that there are two other reasons why anti-abortion activists claim that "an unborn child" is capable of experiencing pain: Fetuses can demonstrate reflexes at an early stage and the use of anaesthesia in the rare occasions a fetus might need surgery.
"A reflex is something that happens below the level of the brain, [it happens] at the level of the spinal cord, and that's not a sign of a fetus actually feeling pain," he explained. On the use of anaesthesia, he said: "The main reason why that's done is to prevent the fetus from moving during the surgery. Again, it's not done to prevent pain."
But since making abortion illegal is not that simple, the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to undercut reproductive health providers. Prior to Tuesday's gala, the American Office of Population Affairs released the a proposed rule to block federal family planning grants, commonly known as Title X, from going to Planned Parenthood and other clinics if they offer or even mention abortions. The 1977 Hyde Amendment already blocks taxpayer money from being used to fund abortions, so Trump's new rule would affect low-income Americans who depend on Title X funds for access to birth control and other services like STI testing and treatment.