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A few simple facts about abortion

April 14, 2010

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska signed a law on Tuesday banning most abortions 20 weeks after conception or later on the theory that a fetus, by that stage in pregnancy, has the capacity to feel pain. The law, which appears nearly certain to set off legal and scientific debates, is the first in the nation to restrict abortions on the basis of fetal pain.

Hello Nebraska.

I’d like to clear up a few things, Nebraska. First, as a matter of fact, there’s no strong evidence that fetuses experience pain. Wikipedia even surveys the literature for those without access to published medical research. In fact, the problem of determining what the criteria would be for expression of fetal pain persists. I’m not enough of a Pollyanna to suggest that it’s unprecedented to make public policy on massively shaky empirical grounds (I study the cultural politics of reproduction, after all!), but that’s not a good reason to make a habit of it.

Here’s another thing, Nebraska. Viability. There are scientific and medical problems with it. It’s a constantly shifting and case-dependent point, that “viability,” at which the fetus might survive outside the womb.

But there are gender problems, too, Nebraska, yes, Gender Problems. You see, Nebraska, it may be the case that, if extricated from the womb at whatever arbitrary point has been set by your legislature, a fetus would “survive,” at least until it needed to be fed, warmed, changed, you know, mom stuff, but we can put even that aside for the time being. It may be that a fetus would survive.

But let’s get one thing clear, Nebraska: fetuses (even “viable” ones) don’t just go all beam-me-up-Scotty and rematerialize in the outside world. The means by which they are relocated are legally and morally relevant.

This bill, Nebraska, is about coercing women to carry a fetus to term. It is about coercing women to give birth. It is about coercing women to relinquish their autonomy and employ their bodies in the “interest” of another life form. It’s about coercing women.

“Viability” is a red herring. Women–even pregnant women–must retain the right to legally control what is done to their bodies. Perhaps it would be okay with you, Nebraska, to permit the State to force its citizens against their will to participate in a clinical trial, or to donate bodily substances to a dying cousin (as in McFall v. Shimp). That is not okay with me. We have our bodies, at least. Our bodies do not belong to you, Nebraska, and they do not belong to any government.

The mere presence of a fetus that, by a somewhat arbitrary estimation, could possibly survive outside of the woman’s body does not constitute compelling interest, Nebraska; or at least it does not obviate the legal interests of the woman whose body and guaranteed rights are trampled by your law. Let’s not forget that she has her body, too, Nebraska. Let’s not forget that there is a living human being at stake here, with rights guaranteed by the Constitution and upheld by law, with the legal right to control what happens to her body, and with the moral capacity to make decisions about her family, Nebraska, which you apparently cannot understand. Ponder that.

And while you’re thinking, Nebraska, I have one more suggestion. Keep in mind that only about 1.1% of all abortions that occur in the United States are performed after 20 weeks gestation. And keep in mind that the women seeking these abortions are women in trouble, facing a life-threatening pregnancy, carrying a nonviable fetus, or caught in a truly dangerous relationships, experiencing, rape, incest, abuse, or the total withdrawal of support. In short, Nebraska, these are exactly the women we have always agreed should be allowed abortions. Let’s not make bad faith assumptions where none exist. You’ve done enough to these women.

So, Nebraska, let’s review. This law is scientifically unfounded, and based on a total disregard for the rights women have to their bodies. It is medically dubious; it is morally wrong. Reconsider it, won’t you?

See also, elle at Shakesville and Sarah at Feminists for Choice.

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