Yes, fetuses masturbate

But Rep. Michael Burgess's comments about fetal self-pleasuring are still wrong

By Katie Halper
June 20, 2013 10:22PM (UTC)
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FILE - In this March 25, 2010 file photo, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas is seen during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republicans are offering to bail out a program in President Barack Obamaís health care law that provides coverage to people with pre-existing medical problems. But theyíd do it by diverting money from another part of the law, unacceptable to many Democrats. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File) (Lauren Victoria Burke)

Like many Americans, I was shocked -- shocked -- when I heard that a Republican congressman had said that abortion should be banned after 15 weeks because of ....fetal masturbation. During a House Rules Committee debate on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Michael Burgess (R-TX), a Tea-Partying former OB-GYN and the current Vice President of the Subcommittee on Health, said (emphasis mine):

This is a subject that I do know something about…. There is no question in my mind that a baby at 20-weeks after conception can feel pain. The fact of the matter is, I argue with the chairman because I thought the date was far too late. We should be setting this at 15-weeks, 16-weeks… You watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful. They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. They feel pleasure, why is it so hard to think that they could feel pain?

I would think that if there was one thing that could convert anti-abortion crusaders to support abortion, it would be the idea of a fetus engaging in sinful behavior. Accepting and even honoring masturbation seems dangerously close to the very moral decadence the right is committed to ending. What's next? Comprehensive sex ed? Marriage equality?


Since there seems to be an inverse relationship between what anti-abortion politicians say and what's scientifically accurate, it's worth looking into whether there is any evidence whatsoever backing up the four implicit and explicit claims made by Burgess.

Claim One (explicit): Fetuses masturbate.  It turns out that in a much-cited 1987 letter published in the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine called "Sonographic observation of in utero fetal masturbation," Dr. Israel Meizner reported seeing a fetus behaving “in a fashion resembling masturbation movements” over the course of 15 minutes. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report of a fetal 'masturbation’ in utero,” said Meizner. OK. So that's one case. Anything else? Actually, there is! In 1996 two Italian doctors published a letter ("Ultrasonographic observation of a female fetus' sexual behavior in utero") in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in which they described observing a fetus making "masturbation movements."


Claim two (implicit): Masturbating fetuses are usually male.  The first observed case was indeed of a male fetus. Meizner described the fetus "grasping his penis in a fashion resembling masturbation movements." But the Italian doctors Giorgio Giorgi and Marco Siccardi observed a female fetus, "touching the vulva with the fingers of the right hand. The caressing movements were centered primarily on the region of the clitoris. Movements stopped after 30 to 40 seconds and started again after a few minutes. Furthermore, these slight touches were repeated and were associated with short, rapid movements of pelvis and legs. After another break, in addition to this behavior, the fetus contracted the muscles of the trunk and limbs, and then clonicotonic movements of the whole body followed. Finally, she relaxed and rested. We observed this behavior for about 20 minutes."

Claim three (explicit): Fetuses masturbate as early as 15 weeks. Unfortunately, neither observed cases of fetal masturbation occurred within the first 15 weeks. Not even within the first 20 weeks. Sadly for Burgess, the male fetus was observed at 28 weeks and the female fetus was observed at 32. If Burgess has observed a 15-week old fetus masturbating, he certainly hasn't written about it. Either Dr. Burgess never observed it or he's extremely modest... or extremely lazy.

Claim four (explicit): 15-week-old fetuses feel pain. Since there's no evidence of early masturbating to support the hypothesis that masturbating fetuses feel pleasure and thus pain, is there any evidence that 15 week old fetuses feel pain directly? Or, to be generous, that 20-week old fetuses feel pain, since the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act uses that as the threshold? According to the bill,


After 20 weeks, the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult human, for example, by recoiling. … In the unborn child, application of such painful stimuli is associated with significant increases in stress hormones known as the stress response. … Subjection to such painful stimuli is associated with long-term harmful neurodevelopmental effects, such as altered pain sensitivity and, possibly, emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities later in life.

But is there any medical or scientific proof to back up these claims? If you ask The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the answer is no.  If you ask the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the answer is no.  If you ask “Doctors on Fetal Pain,” the preferred medical website for the anti-abortion movement, the answer is a resounding yes! But the only problem is that they either don’t link to the work they cite, cite work that doesn’t exist or doesn’t say what it purports to say, or have dead links.

While I applaud Republicans for at least trying to use science, the evidence just doesn’t back them up. Not that that really gets in the way for them, anyway.

Katie Halper

Katie Halper is a writer, filmmaker, comedian and host of the Katie Halper show, a weekly WBAI radio show and podcast. She writes for The Nation, Rolling Stone, Vice, The Guardian, and has appeared on MSNBC, HuffPost Live, RT, Sirius Radio.

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Abortion Fetuses Masturbating Fetuses Masturbation Michael Burgess