A Science-Based Abortion Policy Is Impossible

By Alex B. Berezow

Thanks to Kermit Gosnell and various pieces of legislation, the ever-simmering culture war over abortion has yet again taken center stage. But there’s something strikingly different about the debate this time: It’s actually focused on the science of embryology.

Currently, American women can legally have an abortion up through the 24th week of pregnancy, which is well into the second trimester (defined as weeks 13-28), assuming that an abortion clinic will actually perform it. (According to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, only 23 percent of abortion providers will perform a procedure after 20 weeks.)

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But conservatives are making the case that an abortion after 20 weeks should not be allowed because some embryological evidence indicates the possibility that a fetus can experience pain at that point in development. In an article for Slate, William Saletan does an excellent job explaining that the science is complicated and debatable, but he still rejects the “pain standard” offered by conservatives. Why? Because he doesn’t trust them.

Mr. Saletan believes that restricting abortion at 20 weeks is just one step on the path to banning abortion altogether. This “slippery slope” argument – like all such arguments – is completely unconvincing. Indeed, using that logic, the government should never pass any laws at all.

Perhaps unwittingly, Mr. Saletan has demonstrated that science is not in a position to solve the abortion debate. It can illuminate the discussion by answering questions such as, “When can a fetus experience pain?” or, “When does a fetus gain consciousness?” Someday, science may be in a position to answer those questions, but even then, it will not be able to cast a decisive vote. That’s because the issues at stake here are not scientific; they are moral.

Essentially, the only question worth asking is: “At what point does a fetus deserve the same rights that are afforded to every other human being?” And Americans have already answered this question convincingly.

According to a December 2012 Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal through the first trimester, but 64 percent believe that abortion should be illegal in the second trimester. (A whopping 80 percent believe it should be illegal in the third trimester.)

So, Americans have issued their verdict: Abortions should be banned after 12 weeks.

Is that unreasonable? Progressives will say yes, accusing conservatives of trying to control a woman’s body. But this is demagoguery. Pregnancy involves three humans: A woman, a man and a fetus. Any discussion that doesn’t take reality into account should be dismissed.

Since the left is fond of comparing the United States to Europe – that paradise of progressive values – it is worth examining European abortion laws: They are far, far more conservative than American laws. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Writing in The Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta explains:

France permits abortions up until the 14th week of pregnancy... After that, abortions are only available in exigent circumstances, such as severe fetal deformities, or to save the health or life of the mother. France also has a mandatory one-week waiting period for all abortions (they prefer to describe it as a "cooling-off" period), unless by so waiting the woman would pass the 14-week cut-off, which coincides with the end of the first trimester.

That’s France, the country Americans perceive to be the most sexually liberated of all. She goes on: “Other nations that restrict abortions largely to the first trimester include: Germany (14 weeks), Italy (90 days from the last menstrual period), Spain (14 weeks), and Portugal (10 weeks).”

What would happen if we followed Europe’s lead and banned abortion after the first trimester? Well, roughly 1.2 million abortions occur annually in the U.S. According to Guttmacher, 88 percent (1.06 million) of those occur within the first 12 weeks. That means, potentially, 140,000 more children would be born each year.

Is that really such a horrible thing? Does that justify the uproar coming from the pro-choice movement about the supposed conservative assault on women’s bodies? It definitely doesn’t sound like it.

Unfortunately, abortion will probably be a hotly debated topic for decades to come. But, we should let data, science (when possible) and reality guide the debate, not demagoguery. Such a discussion is 40 years overdue.

Dr. Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and is co-author of Science Left Behind.