Science, Reason Must Inform Late-term Abortion Ban Vote
Incendiary anti-choice rhetoric and junk science have no place in public policy
Beneath the workaday exterior of present-day Albuquerque, reproductive rights are under attack. Proponents of a late-term abortion ban—handily titled “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance”—are counting on Albuquerque residents to vote for the ordinance. ... and against both science and reason.
Before we get into the ordinance, let's create some context. Unless otherwise specified, all information cited here was sourced from the Guttmacher Institute's “Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States.” This data can be accessed at bit.ly/usabortionfacts. Numbers are neutral, so they're useful for communicating about an emotionally charged subject. Late-term abortions—medical terminations performed at 20 weeks and beyond—comprise 1.5 percent of all abortions. At present, there are only four doctors who perform late-term abortions in the United States. There is one clinic that offers late-term abortions in Albuquerque. Excepting Roe v. Wade's inaugural year, New Mexico's abortion rate has remained below the national average. (See the Institute's “Trends in Abortions in New Mexico, 1973-2008” at bit.ly/nmabortiontrends.) A 2012 comparative study of data from the Centers for Disease Control, The Guttmacher Institute, birth certificates and population-based data found that legal abortions are approximately 14 times safer than childbirth. Read it at bit.ly/obstetgynecol. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ official position is that there is “no legitimate scientific information that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain.”
Aside from the fact that public health policy must be informed by scientific—rather than ideological—evidence, the most troubling factor associated with implementing this ban is the fact that severe fetal abnormalities are often not detectable until at least 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The lengthy, small-print ordinance text on your special election ballot fails to provide a summary of the proposed late-term abortion ban—which does not include exceptions for rape or incest—and it's riddled with scientific inaccuracy. Comprehensive analyses of peer-reviewed scientific research have concluded that a fetus does not possess the capacity to feel pain at 20 weeks gestation. To learn more, visit bit.ly/fetalpainreview. To counter the science, arguments based on conjecture about relative development of the prefrontal cortex and thalamus are being used to raise so-called “reasonable” doubt. But the overwhelming scientific consensus on “fetal pain”—the pseudoscience presented by anti-abortion organizations in an attempt to circumvent judicial precedent set by Roe v. Wade in 1973—couldn't be more transparent: At 20 weeks gestation, a fetus is simply not yet equipped to feel pain. But the “pain capable” ruse is just the anti-choice movement's springboard. Anti-abortion cards handed out to Albuquerque trick-or-treaters and occupation by Operation Rescue’s gruesome, exploitative “truth truck” mobile billboards are a prelude.
If voters approve this ordinance, Albuquerque would become the first American city to enact a municipal abortion ban. New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has stated that such a ban would be unconstitutional. However the current state of Texas' HB 2—which includes statewide regulations requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, thereby restricting access to abortion—should give those who would leave this decision to the judiciary pause. Here's a quick recap: In Texas, HB 2's admitting privileges provision was ruled unconstitutional by federal District Judge Lee Yeakel on Oct. 31. In the decision, Yeakel explains that “the act’s admitting-privileges provision is without a rational basis and places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.” On Nov. 1, a three-judge panel of the 5th US Court of Appeals stayed Yeakel's ruling—leaving more than 26 million women without access to safe, legal abortions. The US Supreme Court gave the state of Texas a Nov. 12 deadline to respond to a lawsuit filed by abortion providers; Texas responded by filing a brief in defense of HB 2 with the Court on Tuesday. In the meantime, some women in Texas—and their families—find themselves in an untenable situation.
Consider the truth about this ordinance's faulty underlying fetal pain premise before voting; the “facts” you’ll find presented on your ballot are not representative of scientific consensus within the medical community, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Here in Albuquerque, pro-ordinance arguments are shot through with circular reasoning, religious premises and anecdotal evidence. Citizens of Albuquerque, we all now face a decision: If we vote “for” the ban, we restrict access to late-term abortions for any reason other than immediate danger to a woman's physical health. Aside from the fact that public health policy must be informed by scientific—rather than ideological—evidence, the most troubling factor associated with implementing this ban is the fact that severe fetal abnormalities are often not detectable until at least 20 weeks of pregnancy. Ultrasounds can be performed throughout a pregnancy, but many abnormalities in a developing fetus aren't detectable until 14 to 22 weeks; third-trimester ultrasounds provide even more insight. Every pregnancy is different; making the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a complex and difficult process, but it does not call for government interference. These decisions can be best addressed by doctors, patients and families.
By invoking worst-case scenarios, anti-choice activists hope to enact a backdoor abortion ban. Providing agency, access and choice to New Mexican women and families—including education and health care—could potentially reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions, whether late-term or otherwise. But no contraceptive method is 100 percent effective, and with actual use, unintended pregnancies happen.
You are being asked to institute a late-term abortion ban for women that prohibits any abortion after 20 weeks, unless it presents an immediate physical crisis. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. These late-term abortions make up 1.5 percent of all abortions. I could regale you with worst-case scenarios involving fetal deformity, rape, mental illness and the like. But, with inflammatory dialogue already dominating this issue, I simply urge you to carefully consider your position on this issue. Study the evidence and consult your conscience. Decide whether you believe government should have the right to make de facto medical decisions that exclude directives of both patient and doctor. Consider the truth about this ordinance's faulty underlying fetal pain premise before voting on a ballot; the “facts” you’ll find presented on your ballot are not representative of scientific consensus within the medical community, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Even Pope Francis seems to recognize that myopic cultural obsession with pelvic politics doesn’t serve the greater good. But access, agency and education do.