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:
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.