Fetal Position

Republican Michael Burgess who rationalized that by 15 weeks, a fetus could be documented touching its genitals. From that he surmised that it must feel pleasure, concluding that it must also be able to feel pain. I don’t think he’s crazy.



The 20 week abortion ban is creeping its way, state by state, across the country, and gaining momentum. As the conversation inevitably comes around to the debate about conception, contraception, the life of the mother, economics, rape, etc., we listen through the familiar slings and arrows for something definitive to hold onto. Some look in the bible, some in feminist treatises born in the sixties. And in those respectively ancient texts, we find that nothing much has changed in the argument. There are pros, there are cons, there is context, and little variation on a theme that wants to depict one side as evil and the other righteous, or pious, or good. We see it in every debate: the need to paint a good and a bad with little sense of meeting in the middle.

We see it in the talking points about Edward Snowden: hero or traitor? The national narrative is such that we need to choose a  side, with little nuance for facts or context. The story this week that accompanies the newest abortion legislation is that of Republican Michael Burgess who rationalized that by 15 weeks, a fetus could be documented touching its genitals. From that he surmised that it must feel pleasure, concluding that it must also be able to feel pain. “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?” he said.

The lefty press has gone systematically batshit over that one, with loud headlines that scream of a bizarre congressman who alleges that fetuses masturbate. The focus is on painting this guy as a crazy nutjob who  cannot speak definitively about fetuses, masturbation, or abortion.

As I’ve discussed before, my views on the abortion debate fit squarely within my liberal social views. I support a woman’s right to choose.

But I can’t subscribe to the narrative on this one. I don’t think the idea that a fifteen week old fetus can feel pain is crazy, nor do I believe that the notion of a fetus feeling pleasure, even from the genitals, is nuts. (Get it? Nuts.) A quick Google search tells me that the spinal cord is clearly defined and the spinal nerves start to stretch out from the spinal cord weeks 11-12 and by week 16 the baby can be seen grasping things, including the umbilical cord. S/he makes it’s presence ‘felt’ with kicking/waving movement. Week 20 has nerve cells making complex connections and sensory perception with the brain and the entire body. I don’t know when nerve endings in the genitals grow, but I do know that they are present way before sexual maturity. Babies touch their junk. Because it feels good. This isn’t sexual. This is normal. Eventually, we tell our kids about privacy and appropriateness, but it’s part of learning about their bodies. Sucking thumbs feel good and comforting to babies. We can see fetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb.

To dismiss Representative Burgess’s statement as asinine and crazy does a disservice to those who want to move beyond the age-old narrative that has never gotten resolved. There are crazy extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who believe in their deepest hearts that killing is so wrong that they kill abortion doctors in service to their own twisted logic are wrong, and bad. Those who dismiss without consideration those who sincerely believe that each conceived being deserves life are also wrong, especially when they look only for a talking point with which to paint someone as off-kilter.

The real culprit here is the deadening of our debate skills, the means by which we hear different viewpoints and consider them. We have been counseled into extremes and absolutes: pro-life or pro-choice, hero or traitor, republican or democrat, good or bad. And with our pre-formed ideas of which is which, we are only looking at confirmation for these values. Thus, when someone in the opposition (because everyone in the South or on the pro-life side or with a capital R in front of their names is ripe for the enemy treatment), his words become fodder for faux admonition.

Upworthy has picked up this gauntlet and is on its way to the Heaven of high click-through rates and shares. (I could just be jealous). People I admire have accepted this baton and are running with the fetal masturbation punchlines and outrage. I am pro-choice. But I’m open to intelligent arguments about time restrictions backed by science. And I believe that the debate needs to go beyond the forty week gestation period and include a rational discussion about the party who will fight for the life of a fetus but abandon a baby born to poor economic circumstance.

But perhaps that makes me the jerk-off.

Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times. www.JaimeFranchi.com

17 thoughts on “Fetal Position”

  1. Great piece.. I am pro choice, however every single day as I love my two sons I am so thankful and blessed beyond words that two young women half way around the world chose life over abortion.

  2. Do you think I’d get a divorce if the word master nation appears on my news feed? See!!! Even autocorrect thinks so! Great piece ma!

  3. Here is the thing, you can’t even have an intelligent discussion or argument about anything unless there is an agreement on medical fact and respect for those involved in the discussion. There is no medical fact regarding the assertion of Michael Burgess.The idea he asserted seemed a combination of shock journalism and untruth. I will admit I am pro choice. I want to share, unemotionally, medical facts and discuss with respect why a women’s right to choose is a human right. As long as the argument surrounding reproductive choice does not reflect medical facts, (no abortions do not cause breast cancer) there is no ability to have a civilized discussion. All the manufactured, emotional tirades in the world will not alter the fact that keeping abortions safe and legal is in the best interest of this nation and it’s women. I respect the religious orientation of many in this fight for choice, I do not demand that people think the way I do. I understand the emotional dressing to this argument. I would not presume to change anyone’s decision regarding their personal situation, but I know that rich women will always have access and I want all women to have access. It is sometimes medically necessary,and I do not want any non qualified government puppet to play doctor either. We need respect in this debate and it is hard to find when people stand up in the hall of congress and say what Burgess did.

  4. @Sheila – And there’s a well thought-out reply. The fact is that Burgess is an ob-gyn and wasn’t looking to make an outrageous statement. He wasn’t alleging that fetuses masturbate – just that it might be worth considering whether or not they could feel pleasure/pain at 15 weeks gestation. The debate has gone off the hinges on the left, taking “fetuses masturbate” and running with it like they were handed a gaffe wrapped in a big red bow. It takes away from any of the real debate. I agree with you that “keeping abortions safe and legal is in the best interest of this nation and it’s women.” The reaction to Burgess insults the pro-choice position.

    1. I don not personally know Burgess or his qualifications or why he is not currently practicing medicine and is involved in politics. What I do know is that MASTURBATION is a sensationalist term to my little ears and no one would mistake it’s use in the abortion debate. I don’t like his argument either. Come to me with scientific fact, with studies and please spare me more “opinion” in this debate. The left that people keep pouncing on has the interest of the child from birth to death at heart, that means something much more to me. There is so much talk about a fetus, yet many do not share the belief that it is a person until it is born. A woman lost her life in Ireland recently because of the opposite of this belief, this is the kind of non medical ignorance that beats women down, divorce science from religion and then come to the debate. The left was handed a gaffe with a big red bow in my opinion. I do not believe the reaction to Burgess insults the pro choice position, I believe it once again seeks to assert the pseudo science of the conservative right over the science of gestation, birth and abortion. Just my opinion. I was particularly insulted by Burgess. He made no cogent argument in my opinion, he made a mockery of the great hall of congress, here it was debated whether a black man could be a free man, where a women could be granted the vote, and so much more. Bringing his argument forward in the basest terms possible, once again fed into the “good rapes do not produce pregnancy” debates and so much more. I want these leaders of ours to be elevated on a higher standard with their argument, with their discussion than common street rats. All the sensationalism of the right, the Limbaughs and the Jindahls recent rant just serve to support my point. There is no dignity in manufactured truths.

  5. @Sheila – But yet it’s the left who brought the outrageous word “masturbation” into the conversation by deliberately misunderstanding the point that Burgess was bringing up. He wasn’t trying to be sensationalist – the media is.

    1. Well that is all lost in the translation, and the tradition of shock journalism of the right. All this drama belays the point. Regardless of who is pointing the finger and who it points to in this case, it is still anti choice promotion. They need to get on to the business of government excluding the governing of vaginas. Burgess inserted himself into that argument and the fall out is deserved. In this climate, with the constant use of emotionalism and lack of facts on the right, all this is to be expected. Defending what he inserted himself into is tantamount to defending his argument, which unscientifically proven has again no place in the debate. We should not be talking about this, maybe that will occur to Burgess, as a doctor. Maybe, just maybe saying MASTURBATION will now make people more aware of the real agenda of the right, erasing women from the work force by taking away their right to birth control and abortion, the very things which allowed them to participate. Burgess is not innocent in this.

    1. You wrote a well – crafted, thought provoking piece here today. My opinions are strong because I have been in this fight a while.I also understand the Republican strategy; I ran as a Republican and this was a hot button issue in our primary in 2000. I really understand their thought process and how they hope to manipulate and silence opposition, the courting of the conservative vote and how much they were willing to abandon for the sake of power. At one time, most of the Republicans here were pro choice. Only when they decided to embrace the conservative did they decide women were okay to sacrifice. I get it. I appreciate your effort here at clearing up what you and others see as an injustice. I have no doubt you understand my position. I will say this, until I ran for office I never gave abortion rights another thought.When asked about it early on in the vetting process, I said that on the principal of a woman’s right over her own body, the government had no place in the issue, in other words, no one had the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. I am that sure of my opinion based on that.When someone else interferes and creates laws about specific body functions of one sex, that is going too far. I was a less government Republican before they went to far with that too. Republicans tend to cut their nose to spite their face for profit and power, the balance is gone. Many are no longer Republicans anymore based on this kind of policy. We are a different breed, kind of like Republocrats or something close to Dems, but just not quite there. The longer the Republicans twist their party, the closer they come to destroying it completely. The key is to keep discussing the issues and you have done that here.

  6. you’re preaching to the choir here, jaime. i’m a pragmatist before i’m a progressive (a dedicated one, though) and don’t often find myself on the far left fringe of any political argument. there are plenty of center-slightly-right points that i can agree with, and do. but perhaps because i am not an extremist, i don’t think that every single point made by someone (on my leftie side or the rightie one) deserves equal consideration; there are far too many (again, on both sides) that are just craziness. i have a filter – maybe just to keep me sane. : ) – excellent piece, friend.

  7. okay. i’ll address the point made by burgess and countered by whoever made the movie.

    burgess’s “i’m a *doctor* and i say it’s possible that fetuses feel pleasure (based on sonogram pics that look like their hands are touching their genitals) and **therefore** feel pain and, therefore, that we shouldn’t allow abortions after X weeks because fetuses are sentient” is yet another supposedly scientific anti-abortion claim. it is intended to push the OK-to-abort date back from end of second trimester in a way that the fetal viability argument doesn’t (for some people). the cynic would say it’s a craven attempt to influence legislation, not a medical fact. IMO, if we’re going to discuss the point burgess is trying to make, a pathologist or neuropathologist is probably better than an OB/GYN. it uses, as sheila points out, masturbation as a sensationalist headline and, because of that, for me, is immediately suspect.

    the film? is ridiculous. and stupid. and embarrassing to me as a progressive. and i’m sick of the organized dems who took stupid remarks (like mitt’s women/binder stumble) and tried to make a serious case against him for it. and stuff like this movie, which is exactly the same kind of crap. but the repubs do it as often and as cravenly as the dems so, so i guess it’s not going away anytime soon.

    if we want to debate abortion – which, frankly, i think boils down to an unbridgeable divide – i don’t think discussing whether fetuses touch their genitals is a Real Conversation starter. and i seriously doubt that that’s why the good doc brought it up.

  8. As one whose first child was born prematurely after a troubled pregnancy, I understand the insistence that the fetus is life, and I understand the personal and private nature of deciding whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy. The stubborn and often inflammatory positions many people take on this issue (as well as others) is frustrating and counterproductive.

    As to your point about “debate skills,” I have been finding myself increasingly reluctant to participate in online political conversations. It seems like any position that deviates from political orthodoxy and attempts to find moderation is immediately scorned and labeled with a word that either begins with “anti-” or ends with “-ist.” I can blame cable news for this, but in reality it’s only intensified it because this tendency has always existed.

    Great, sensible post, Jaime, but I’ve come to expect that from you.

  9. @Sheila – I had no idea that was your political history. I appreciate the inside scoop – and your perspective.

    @Candace – Thank you again for your compliments on my writing and position. I agree with you very much. My next post…we’ll see 😉

    @Richard – About being frustrated by the absolutist opinions about everything – me freaking too. Which you know. Except I keep jumping into these arguments headfirst – or posting them here.

  10. Once again, Jaime, you ask us to move to the middle. I have always admired the late comic strip hero, Pogo, who maintained that his political position was “the extreme middle-of-the-road.” The REAL problem, as you clearly address, is the breakdown of public discourse. We must be willing to listen and to THINK. And, BTW, what’s wrong with a fetus feeling his/her genitals? All parents see this. We are reminded that the sensation of being alive is the strongest reason for staying alive. Like you, I am pro-choice. But the choice can still be informed. So what’s wrong with knowing more than we did before – or admitting more than we did before?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *