Image credit: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons
The Texas statute that went into effect last week is one of many similar anti-abortion laws that have either recently cleared state legislatures or will clear them in the coming months. Using the weapon of a civil suit that can be filed by any private citizen, the law seeks to end abortion in Texas by limiting the procedure to the weeks prior to a detectable “fetal heartbeat.” The Texas Heartbeat Act (H.B. 1515/S.B. 8) describes that boundary as six weeks, an assertion that is routine in Christian media. At least one anti-abortion website claims that a heartbeat can be heard between three and six weeks.
But researchers say that’s not true.
First, that cluster is still an embryo at six weeks gestation: it will not become a fetus until the eighth week, when it will mostly be a rudimentary head and a small torso with traces of developing organs. True, two tubes begin to join around the six-week marker and begin to transmit electrical signals, which scientists call a “flutter,” not a heartbeat. Why? Because these signals are so faint that they are only detectable by a transvaginal ultrasound: these developing cells do not resolve into a fully-formed heart, but one that could never function outside the uterus, until ten weeks.
Yet, who is surprised that the Texas legislature passed, and the conservative Supreme Court upheld, a law mostly based on lies? In the age of COVID-19, science skepticism has become an identity-based political strategy on the right. According to one report, numerous GOP lawmakers who are themselves vaccinated “have declined to push back against vaccine skeptics in their party who are sowing mistrust about the shots’ safety and effectiveness.”
Conservatives have long promoted skepticism about science in America, and those beliefs continue to reverberate in the present. Anti-fluoridation campaigns waged in the 1950s have been resurrected in states with a long conservative populist history like Wisconsin. What’s unique about the Texas case is not the fake science, but that misinformation about women’s health has been politicized in a way that invites ordinary citizens to become, in effect, vigilantes on behalf of a conservative governor and legislature.
At the same time, it’s worth recalling that women’s bodies have been the target of quackery since the birth of modern medicine. Think, for example, of James Marion Sims, an antebellum physician who operated on enslaved women. Sims did not even using the most rudimentary anesthesia available in the 1840s, because he and other physicians believed that Black women did not feel pain.
Similarly, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, physicians routinely performed clitoridectomies on women and girls thought to have “disordered” sexual desires. And ponder the conspiracy theories about tampons that still transfer from generation to generation: that girls who use them are no longer virgins or that corporations put cancerous asbestos in their products to make women bleed—and buy—more.
But perhaps the science lies that have had the most impact on our contemporary political world are the falsehoods about gestation: that every fertilized egg is an “unborn child;” that embryos and fetuses feel pain during the abortion procedures that became legal under Roe v. Wade (1973); and that the medical profession callously ignores fetal pain to profit from the procedure.
The myth of fetal pain, in particular, acquired a national platform in January 1984, when President Ronald Reagan stated in a speech to the Association of National Religious Broadcasters that “There’s another grim truth we should face up to. Medical science doctors confirm that when the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.”
The idea of vulnerable babies in pain was a powerful one. It caused a firestorm on the right, one that conveniently distracted the president’s religious supporters from the fact that he would not act directly to ban abortion. This was a hope they had cherished since Reagan declared, in 1981, that he agreed with some religious leaders: human life, the President said, began at conception.
However, as we have seen with COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies, you can always find someone with M.D., or O.D., after their name to back up fake science. Thus, twenty-six physicians recruited by the Value of Life Committee rushed to commend Reagan for his stand. “Mr. President, in drawing attention to the capability of the human fetus to feel pain, you stand on firmly established ground,” they declared.
Immediately, 26,000 members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a public statement that these assertions by the president and his allies were false. Nevertheless, the Republican party saw its opportunity, moving to rebrand abortion as a human rights issue, and cells in every stage of development in utero as a fully formed human baby.
This national rebranding was unveiled in May 1985, when Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) convened a Judiciary Committee hearing on “The Medical Evidence of Fetal Pain” to investigate fantasies about abortion that were gaining traction with Republican voters. Thurmond’s committee also had a star witness: Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortion provider who had become an anti-abortion zealot.
Nathanson was well known to the conservative public as the star of “The Silent Scream,” a short anti-abortion film released by the National Right to Life Committee in 1984 which circulated widely in schools, churches and community groups because of the new VCR technology. Relatively dull and didactic, the highlight of the film was a blurry ultrasound of an abortion procedure that, according to Nathanson, showed a fetus cringing away from a surgical instrument, and its mouth popping open in an apparent cry for help. The fetus, the doctor explained, suffered not just pain but visible emotional trauma as it was being extracted from the uterus, its cries for help seen by medical personnel but unheard by the public.
“The Silent Scream” was pure propaganda. But conservative committee members seized upon its imagery to amplify falsehoods about the violence, and thus inherent criminality, of abortion. One Senator, New Hampshire Republican Gordon J. Humphrey, posed a gruesome and irrelevant moral analogy in his dialogue with Nathanson. “Dr. Nathanson, supposing it was necessary to amputate the leg of a child within the first week after birth,” Humphrey conjectured, “for some medical reason, and supposing that procedure was carried out without anesthesia. What would be the reaction in the medical community?”
Nathanson predicted that there would be a “full-scale revolution” on the part of nurses and physicians.
What if that procedure happened 75,000 times a year, Humphrey pressed, the equivalent of the number of abortions performed annually? “I think there would be massive public revulsion at such a proposal and that it would be quickly scrapped,” Nathanson replied.
What was the difference between what Humphrey had just described and “the real example of the 75,000 unborn children late in term whose whole bodies are cut up?” the Senator asked.
There was none, Nathanson replied.
And did fetuses feel pain? Humphrey encouraged the doctor.
“I think even the most hardened abortion advocates will concede there is a primitive level of pain here,” Nathanson began. However, perhaps because he was testifying under oath and not for a popular propaganda film, he then rehearsed a set of medical facts that contradicted that position.“Now, there is no cognition of [pain] perhaps,” Nathanson hedged, “no sense of it in the cerebral cortex, and I don’t think the child would intellectualize it, but certainly there is this primitive level of pain, and there is the avoidance of the source of pain.” In other words, nerves existed, but the embryonic or fetal brain was incapable of receiving or experiencing those signals.
Importantly, both men persistently referred to embryos and fetuses as if they were fully gestated children who do feel, understand and fear physical pain. Thus, when Humphrey concluded triumphantly that there was “no mistaking what the doctor has said . . . The child feels pain just as we do,” he cemented the notion that all abortions were violent human rights violations. As he concluded, “I think the medical establishment in this country . . . is guilty of the most unspeakable crimes and has a great deal of housecleaning to do.”
The idea of fetal pain embedded itself so deeply in the anti-abortion movement that it has become common sense, along with other misleading generalizations: for example, that a preponderance of women who have abortions are emotionally traumatized by the decision, that they suffer depression and regret their whole lives, and that abortion leads to infertility.
Over the course of almost four decades, these myths have done their work: portraying abortion as an irreparable crime that a minority of genuinely passionate activists will do anything to stop. Tellingly, reports about the Texas law last week were often illustrated with images of fully formed fetuses in a far more advanced stage of gestation than the fuzzy blobs with trace organs that an ultrasound reveals at six weeks.
Now, with the conservative Supreme Court majority’s decision to uphold the Texas Heartbeat Law—without asking for briefs or arguments—the right wing’s medical myths about abortion are reshaping, not just politics, not just women’s health, but the rule of law itself.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay is adapted from a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.