Top Medical Group Pushes Late-Term Abortion With Misleading Studies

OB-GYN association touts fetal pain study repudiated by co-author

People gather for a reproductive rights rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall on September 01, 2021 in Downtown Brooklyn in New York City. / Getty Images
September 7, 2021

One of Planned Parenthood's top medical allies cites debunked scientific studies to advocate for late-term abortions, according to medical experts. 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the leading membership organization for OB-GYNs with deep ties to the abortion industry, cites two studies to support its position that fetuses are unable to feel pain until roughly 24 weeks—a widely held view contradicted by recent studies. Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, who helped write the 2010 study cited by ACOG, has since repudiated his findings. In 2020, Derbyshire co-authored a peer-reviewed analysis that concludes fetuses begin to feel pain at 12 weeks, the end of the first trimester. The National University of Singapore neuroscientist, who is pro-choice, said ACOG's stance fails to acknowledge updated scientific understandings of pain.

"If they want to maintain a webpage on fetal pain then they probably should update it and start rethinking it," Derbyshire told the Washington Free Beacon. "They’ve dug a bit of a hole for themselves because they’ve indicated that in some sense [fetal pain] does matter—I think that’s a tactical error."

ACOG's position on fetal pain could play a major role in setting abortion policy as the Supreme Court case prepares to decide a legal challenge to Mississippi's fetal pain law, which prohibits abortion after 15 weeks. The state contends the law reflects updated scientific understandings of fetal development since the Court established the trimester approach to regulation when it legalized abortion nationwide in Roe v. Wade. ACOG has called for the Supreme Court to strike down the ban—a position that could shape how justices approach the issue. The Supreme Court cited ACOG research on abortion safety in the majority opinion of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which ruled against a Texas law that required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the organization for its expertise in her opinions on issues ranging from contraception to late-term abortion.

A spokeswoman for ACOG told the Free Beacon that the organization maintains its position that fetuses are unable to feel pain prior to viability. That position, according to the group's website, is based on Derbyshire's 2010 paper, as well as a 2005 study that collected and reviewed medical literature dating back decades. The 2005 study, which was led by a lawyer, was dogged by ethical and conflict of interest scandals. Two of its authors failed to disclose their abortion-industry ties to the medical journal prior to publication. Its lawyer worked for abortion lobbyist NARAL and one of its doctors was a practicing abortionist.

ACOG released a joint statement Wednesday with other medical lobbying organizations in opposition to the Texas law banning abortion after six weeks, which the Supreme Court declined to block in a 5-4 decision.

ACOG advocates for legal abortion until fetal viability at roughly 24 weeks. The group insists that fetuses cannot detect pain until viability because the cerebral cortex of the brain, which activates when pain is detected, does not develop until 24 weeks. This understanding has been contradicted by two more recent scientific discoveries: Those without a cerebral cortex feel pain, and those unable to feel pain still have an active cerebral cortex. The organization has ignored such findings even as it lobbies Congress to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would overturn pro-life state laws.

Dr. Donna Harrison has practiced as an OB-GYN for more than three decades. She said doctors are aware of the reality of fetal pain. They administer pain medications when performing surgeries in the womb and have long seen unborn children physically react to needles and other painful medical instruments since the dawn of the ultrasound in the United States in the 1970s. Harrison said ACOG’s position on fetal pain proves the group is more focused on promoting abortion than providing accurate medical expertise.

"ACOG has positioned itself as a rabidly pro-abortion organization," Harrison, CEO of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Free Beacon. "Their abortion advocacy has blinded them to scientific reality. ... It’s clear that fetuses react to pain." 

ACOG has spent $15.5 million on lobbying since 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The group spent $2.7 million on elections since 2010, with roughly two-thirds going to Democrats.

ACOG has advocated in recent years to protect government funding of Planned Parenthood, which it has been heavily connected to for decades. One of its founding fellows, Jane Hodgson, was convicted in 1970 of performing an illegal abortion and was later awarded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Margaret Sanger Award for her advocacy. An extensive list of the group's presidents worked with Planned Parenthood before, during, and after their tenures.

Derbyshire and Harrison emphasized that there is still much to learn on the topic of fetal pain. The idea of what exactly defines pain is a much-disputed question at the core of this debate. The definition of pain can vary from the signal sent to the brain, to the reaction from the body, or more simply to the personal feeling.

"It’s something that’s way beyond and way deeper than something we can express," Harrison told the Free Beacon.

Derbyshire's co-author of the 2020 study, John Bockmann, said he has no problem with groups like ACOG advocating on certain medical issues, but is concerned when that advocacy disregards crucial information.

"What I do have a problem with is distorting their authoritative role in the debate in favor of something that is not right," he told the Free Beacon. "And I think that to the extent that this information is out there, they owe it to the medical community and the public at large to state the facts."

The Supreme Court is set to take up a key abortion case later this year, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which regards a 15-week abortion ban. Defendants for the case filed a brief to the Court detailing the updated science of fetal development, which they argue proves the necessity to overturn Roe v. Wade.