Next abortion legislation arguments will use mixed evidence on fetal pain

Reproductive health issues have long been controversial, and one law professor believes that the next wave of abortion restriction legislation and court cases will take a new approach by discussing the effects of abortion on the fetus. In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Professor R. Alta Charo projects that, because the recent arguments supporting abortion restrictions focusing on women’s safety were shot down due to medical evidence, the focus will turn to the effects on the fetus.

New focus on evidence

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt shot down a Texas law requiring physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals while reasoning that the procedures have become so safe that such a requirement is not necessary. This reasoning signals a shift in court thinking and a new willingness to dive into the medical evidence surrounding the issue rather than defer to the legislature on factual issues. Charo pointed out that in 2007, when the Supreme Court upheld a statute banning dilation and extraction based on the legislature’s findings that such a procedure is not necessary to protect a woman’s health, the Gonzales v. Carhart opinion accepted the legislature’s factual findings because of mixed evidence. Even so, the opinion indicated that the court had a duty to review the facts underlying decisions involving constitutional rights.

Next steps

Charo believes that a shift will occur because medical evidence does not support the argument that abortion is unsafe and presents significant health risks to women. This shift will involve claims that a fetus can feel pain about 20 weeks after conception, based on fetal movement and hormonal activity in response to stimuli and stress. Charo observed that there are growing efforts to require fetal anesthesia, outlaw second-trimester use of dilation and evacuation, and prevent abortion starting at 20 weeks following conception. The opportunity arises for a legislature to state that medical opinion is mixed in light of studies showing that a fetus cannot feel pain due to the development timeline until almost 30 weeks. Charo believes that the Gonzales decision prioritized fetal concerns over women’s health and that that the opportunity may arise again. However, Whole Woman’s Health presents the possibility that the court will consider further evidence rather than deferring to the legislature’s fact finding.