WASHINGTON, D.C.—Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) probably wishes he never made the “hand between their legs” comment yesterday, but he did and now he has to live with the piling on that is already underway. If you have not already heard, the former OB/GYN expressed his feelings openly and without reservation during a House Rules Committee debate on Monday regarding his views on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortion procedures nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Burgess prefaced his remarks with the reminder that because of his years of experience having delivered “thousands of babies, attending thousands of women during their pregnancy, performance of thousands of sonograms, there is no question in my mind that a baby at 20 weeks after conception will feel pain.
“The fact of the matter is,” he continued, “I argued with the chairman because I felt the date was far too late; we should be setting this at 15 weeks, 16 weeks.”
He then spoke about the sorts of things one sees a fetus doing that exemplifies his point. “Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful,” he said. “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? You know, sometimes we have to give voice to the voiceless, and this is one of those times.”
To be fair, even though pretty much every news headline about this story includes in it a version of the word “masturbation”—as in “GOP Congressman Wants to Ban Abortion to Save Masturbating Fetuses,” which is how The Atlantic phrased their examination of Dr. Burgess’ claims—the legislator did not use the M word during the committee hearing. He didn’t even used the word “sexual” to describe what the fetus was up to when he put his hand between his legs. But he did use the word “pleasure,” which is close enough.
As The Atlantic noted, “The most conclusive finding [regarding masturbating fetuses] was in 1996, when two Italian doctors witnessed what they believed was a female fetus purportedly masturbating for 20 minutes and logged their discovery in a letter to The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.” But that fetus was at 32 weeks of gestation, not 15, at which time, the magazine also noted, “fetuses are around 4 inches long and weigh just a few ounces.”
But who really gives a crap about the various stages of development in this context, unless of course they are hardcore types looking for any reason to outlaw all abortions? The idea of fetal genital pleasure centers beyond a simple reflex action at 15 weeks simply rings false. It’s not totally inane to ascribe sophisticated mental processes to undeveloped brains, of course; we do it with animals and politicians all the time, and parents regularly do it with their unborn chidren. But even if Rep. Burgess was trying to describe something not totally sexual, but along those lines—pleasure between the legs as the opposite of pain—his assumption that the pleasure was genitally derived adds a layer of creepy to his already dubious scientific claim regarding the extent of pleasure or pain that is possible at 15 weeks.
What this demonstrates (once again) is the knot these extreme right-wingers tie themselves into when they use biology to make what for them are really moral or religious determinations. They get all twisted up in competing truths that don’t quite jibe with scientific facts, with a judicious dosage of denial thrown in for good measure, and before you know it they're dodging reporters' questions and having their staff walk back the comment. But what it also shows, and it doesn’t seem like there is much room for denial on this one, is that social conservatives simply see sex literally everywhere. They can't help it so it's no wonder they see it everywhere. They are simply obsessed with sex—and the shame that comes with it—not from the cradle to the grave, but from conception to the last death rattle.
The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act nonetheless passed in the House today, 228 to 196.