The Point Michael Burgess Was Trying to Make About Fetal Masturbation

The Texas lawmaker's comments are really just another way to talk about the doggedly debated topic of whether fetuses feel pain.
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Associated Press

Another week, another awkward remark about pregnancy from a Republican lawmaker.

Last week, it was Rep. Trent Franks' comments about the frequency of pregnancy from rape, the validity and meaning of which have been subject to a tediously hair-spliting debate. This week, it's Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texan, with this:

Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful. They stroke their face. If they're a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to believe that they could feel pain?

OK, so this is fun to laugh at: Masturbating fetuses! And it's a silly thing to say. But it's worth at least looking at what Burgess -- who is an OB/GYN by profession -- was trying to talk about.

First, what is Burgess referring to directly? As The Atlantic Wire's Alex Abad-Santos thinks Burgess was talking about a 1996 letter to the The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. It's not available online, but Abad-Santos posted this excerpt:

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But that doesn't totally make sense, either, since it refers exclusively to female fetal masturbation, whereas Burgess suggested that only male fetuses masturbate -- perhaps a misunderstanding, or a misremembering. Certainly it would fall into age-old tropes about the genders. It may come as little surprise that there hasn't been much other research into the topic; this 1987 paper isn't available online. The point is that there's no clear expert to consult on the matter, and the only literature on the topic is two case reports -- basically, situations where doctors saw what they believed was fetuses touching their genitals, not rigorous research on the topic -- from 16 and 25 years ago. One might also reasonably ask how effectively a researcher could determine that a fetus was mastubating, for pleasure, using blurry ultrasound images. And besides, a 20-week-old fetus isn't capable of actions like grasping.

In any case, this is sort of a sideshow: The point Burgess was trying to make was about fetal pain, after all ("If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to believe that they could feel pain?"). That's actually a part of a much older, and much more researched debate. Pro-life campaigners have argued that fetuses can feel pain, offering that as a reason for banning or restricting abortions. You may recall that throughout 2011, many states passed or considered laws that banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, on the basis that after that point, fetuses can feel pain. Burgess and Franks both made their comments in the course of debate on a House bill that would do the same thing at the national level. (Practically, the bill is a purely symbolic measure: The Democratic Senate is unlikely to take the bill up, it wouldn't pass it, and President Obama would not sign it into law.)

Politically, this is an interesting example of pro-life campaigners choosing to chip away at abortion through piecemeal efforts rather than going for all-out restrictions, which have proven politically unpopular and legislatively elusive. Scientifically, it's a minefield, but most doctors seem to believe that fetuses can't feel pain before the third trimester. That was the conclusion of a 2005 literature review in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Major professional groups have concurred. In 2012, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said, referring to an earlier version of the current bill, "The medical profession produced a rigorous scientific review of the available evidence on fetal pain in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2005. The review concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester. No new studies since the publication of the JAMA paper have changed this dominant view of the medical profession." The British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists came to a similar position, stating, "The fetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks because the connections in the fetal brain are not fully formed."

There are dissenters. Kanwaljeet J.S. Anand, a professor at the University of Tennessee Medical Center has testified that fetuses can likely feel pain at 20 weeks and perhaps earlier, and that their sensations may in fact be stronger than babies. (Anand, interestingly, doesn't describe himself as pro-life or pro-choice, saying his views vary depending on specifics.)

It seems as though Burgess is playing a little fast and loose with the science, both on fetal masturbation and on fetal pain, and his comments on the former are being received as a bit of an absurdity. Rightly so, perhaps. But it's worth focusing on the fetal pain question, since it seems to be the focus of the abortion debate for the foreseeable future. With a sizable and energized pro-life caucus and a passionate base, Republicans in Congress show no sign of ramping down their campaign for 20-week restrictions.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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