WASHINGTON, D.C. - The House passed a bill banning abortions at 20 weeks on Wednesday after it was blocked by centrists and rogue Republican women in January. This time supporters were armed with a new study that seems to throw a wrench into the complicated question of fetal viability.
The key word in that is seems.
Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study which found that a small number of premature babies could survive outside of the womb at 22 weeks, two weeks earlier than the medical community has frequently cited as the lower limit of viability.
The study shifted antiabortion advocates’ attention to the so-called Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act on the horizon. Why would we allow abortions if just two weeks later the fetus could survive? The New York Times and Newsweek both posited that the study could substantially shift the abortion debate.
Bill sponsor Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., agreed. Black referenced the study during the floor debate, saying that the new study proved that fetuses could survive at 22 weeks, an argument she adopted in the days leading up to the vote.
“Knowing that premature babies are being saved as early as 22 weeks into fetal development, there is no legitimate reason to oppose this bill,” Black said in a statement. “Democrats are quick to label conservatives as ‘science deniers’ on matters like climate change so it begs the question – will they deny basic science when it comes to the viability of unborn life?”
But it turns out that the question of when human life begins isn’t “basic science.”
Dr. Hal Lawrence, CEO of American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said that advocates should not look at this study to prop up a belief that 20-week viability could be reached.
“It is essential that we address that now, before this becomes another myth about abortion that is accepted as reality,” he said.
Lawrence noted that the study was not designed to challenge viability, but rather to guide OBGYNs and neonatologists on best practices for premature births.
He also said that the very low survival rate of births at 22 weeks (no babies in the study survived without medical intervention, only 18 out of 78 survived with active treatment, most with serious permanent medical problems) is why the medical community refers to the “threshold of viability.”
According to Lawrence, “there is no point at which viability is clearly established.” Although doctors have guidelines in place for fetuses 24 weeks and older, there is no consistent success rate in premature births under 24 weeks.
Writing for The Daily Beast, Dr. Jeffrey Perlman, a professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College, echoed Lawrence’s concerns about the study contributing to the abortion ban debate.
“I want to make a strong argument that this overstates the data and we are nowhere near such a debate,” Perlman wrote.
“At our institution, we regard 24 weeks as the lower limit of viability and will invariably intervene in such cases after discussions with the parents. If the fetus is at 23 weeks, we regard this as a gray zone, and will talk to the family and explain to them that for us the outcome is unknown. Any younger than that, we do not recommend any intervention. Our approach is one of pragmatism and constant reevaluation, with parental involvement an integral part of this process.”
The bill passed by a vote of 242-184. The Obama administration has stated it “strongly opposes” a 20-week abortion ban.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.