House to hear fetal pain bill

The rushed legislation would require abortion providers to offer patients fetal anesthesia.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published December 5, 2006 10:12PM (EST)

I'm all for providing women with all the accurate medical information that's out there before they have an abortion. But the key here is accurate medical information, rather than the truth as defined by conservatives' gut reactions. On Wednesday, the House will vote on legislation that asserts that fetuses feel pain, and would require abortion providers to offer women anesthesia for their fetuses during the procedure, the Washington Post reports.

It's infuriating enough that this do-nothing Congress has managed to get itself in gear for this issue, even pulling a few strings to get the bill rushed before the House. But even more maddening is that the legislation requires an abortion provider to notify women that "there is substantial evidence" the procedure will cause the fetus to feel pain "20 weeks past fertilization." First, the so-called substantial evidence is still highly controversial. Second, the awkward phrasing of "20 weeks past fertilization" classifies a woman as pregnant even before implantation of the egg in the uterus. That's the type of legalese that could redefine certain types of birth control, like Plan B, as abortifacients. And the Post suggests that the bill might make it harder for some abortion providers to do business, noting that "some medical groups interpret the [bill's] language to mean that the fetus would have to have an application of anesthesia separate from the mother's, a procedure that many abortion clinics are not capable of providing."

Interestingly, despite fierce resistance from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America hasn't decried the legislation. NARAL president Nancy Keenan said in a statement: "Pro-choice Americans have always believed that women deserve access to all the information relevant to their reproductive health decisions. For some women, that includes information related to fetal anesthesia options." And certainly, there are things a woman should know before having an abortion, just like there are things anyone should know before undergoing any kind of invasive procedure.

But women seeking abortions shouldn't be forced to read through an informational booklet as thick as a voters guide, or endure a lengthy lecture from a medical professional, while trying to weigh one politicized scientific claim against the next. This is clearly a tough concept for the Bush administration, but when the standards for what qualifies as scientific fact are set so extremely low, and authority is given to any group that can produce a scattering of studies that back its particular position, we're losing our grip on science.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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