Will the Real Women's Health Advocates Please Stand Up? On Its 42nd Anniversary, the Threats to Roe Are More Real Than Ever, Ignoring Science and Women's Health

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On January 22nd, the House of Representatives marked the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term, by passing a bill that permanently restricts federal funding for abortion. The only reason the bill was not even more draconian is that women GOP lawmakers revolted against the bill’s more severe provisions at the last minute. If there was ever any reason to doubt the importance of electing female legislators, the GOP congresswomen dispelled it with this action.

The House’s restrictive legislation is only one of many similar birthday gifts to Roe from legislatures around the country. In South Carolina, a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy recently passed the House subcommittee. In West Virginia, a virtually identical bill, that was vetoed by the Governor in 2014, is again up for consideration. In Arkansas, legislators are considering requiring women to take abortion-inducing medications in front of their doctors, ignoring that many women prefer to do so in the privacy of their homes. Mississippi lawmakers are debating increasing the waiting periods women must undergo before they can obtain abortions, from 24 to 72 hours. And all that’s just a fraction of the seemingly endless list of abortion-restrictive measures that flooded state legislatures within mere days of the beginning of the 2015 legislative session.

Supporters of these bills claim that fetuses can become viable after reaching 20 weeks’ gestation; that 20-week fetuses can experience pain; and, most disingenuously, that these restrictions help protect women from health risks associated with late-term abortions.

But these justifications fly in the face of scientific reality. A study conducted by the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center concluded that no infant delivered before reaching 21 weeks has ever survived. Another study estimated the average lifespan of an infant born at 20 weeks’ gestation to be around 12 hours. The odds of long-term survival aren’t much better even for those infants that make it past the 20-week mark: even at 23 weeks, infants’ chances of survival stand at a low 17 percent.

The scientific community also squarely rejects the idea that 20-week-old fetuses can feel pain. Far from experiencing suffering, a 20-week fetus is still 6 weeks away from developing the connection between parts of the brain that enable recognition of pain.

But perhaps the most disingenuous of all the arguments that have buoyed anti-choice legislation is the expression of concern for women’s health. The surgical abortion procedure that enables late term abortions, known as D & E, has been repeatedly endorsed by institutions like the World Health Organization, with decades of research attesting to its safety and effectiveness.

The most damning of all arguments against bills that would restrict abortions after 20 weeks is that its most vocal opponents have been precisely the women these measures purport to protect: women who have had to procure abortions due to fetal abnormalities and other health-related reasons. These women are the real Jane Roes. It’s high time that the lawmakers start paying attention to them and to scientifically sound approaches to protecting women’s health. It’s time for the public to demand that their representatives support safe and legal access to vital health care for women, which includes reproductive choice.

Contributed by Staff Attorney Jelena Kolic