So-Called Fetal Pain Legislation Fails in Lame-Duck Congress

The US House of Representatives voted against controversial legislation yesterday that would have required doctors to tell pregnant women considering abortion that a fetus is capable of feeling pain, even though no substantial scientific evidence supports the claim. The “Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act,” introduced by anti-choice legislator Christopher Smith (R-NJ), would have required doctors to tell a woman that a fetus may feel pain, to offer anesthesia for the fetus, and to have a woman sign a form accepting or declining anesthesia before having an abortion.

The legislation has been criticized by many women’s rights groups for allowing politics to trump actual science. In fact, a research team including pediatricians, neuroscientists, and anesthesiologists wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association in August, 2005 that fetuses are likely incapable of feeling pain until about 30 weeks, according to Marcy Bloom, a reproductive choice advocate writing for RH Reality Check. Dr. Wendy Chavkin, the board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, said of the bill’s lack of scientific backing, “This bill would enshrine in federal law unscientific claims that have no medical foundation.”

While most pro-choice groups denounced the bill, opponents of reproductive freedom are split on the legislation. Many abortion opponents, including Representative Smith, hope that the legislation will deter women from choosing to terminate a pregnancy, RH Reality Check reports. Said Rep. Smith, “Is it our hope that this [bill] may dissuade a woman from allowing her child to be killed? Absolutely,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Others, such as Life Decisions International, believes that the legislation would make it easier for a woman to choose abortion, according to RH Reality Check.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) points out in its December 6 release that the bill would have not only dissuaded women from choosing abortion, but it also would have reduced access to abortion: “How many doctors have the resources, training, and insurance coverage to administer anesthesia to a fetus in their office or clinic? This could more than double the cost of the procedure and make it even more difficult for women with limited economic means to afford the additional cost of fetal anesthesia and/or travel to an equipped provider.”

The bill failed by a vote of 250 to 162. According to Reuters, the Senate failed to pass similar legislation two years ago.
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NOW release 12/6/06; RH Reality Check 12/6/06; Reuters 12/6/06; LA Times 12/7/06; PRCH release 12/6/06; National Abortion Federation 12/6/06

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