The confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court of the United States is a watershed moment. Out of nine Supreme Court justices, four of the justices are now female—the highest number of women on the bench since the court began. Jackson is only the sixth woman ever in the court’s history.
In my own field, Obstetrics and Gynecology, it wasn’t so long ago that women made up only a very small percentage. In fact, when Judge Jackson was born in 1970, only seven percent of OB-GYNs were female. Today, that number has flipped almost to the opposite and now a full 79.1 percent of all OB-GYNs are women.
Since 1970 clearly a lot has changed, especially in our medical knowledge. Chief among them—our understanding of pregnancy, including embryonic development and fetal pain.
During her testimony, when Jackson was asked when human life begins, she replied, “I don’t know.” Just a few months before that, her new colleague, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dismissed the question of fetal pain as a “fringe” idea.
I’m sure we all agree that women and children should receive the best care possible and so I’d like to appeal to both women to rethink positions that are both factually inaccurate and scientifically flawed.
As women of great influence, it’s vital that they understand the scientific basis for human life. These statements are not simply “personal opinions”—they are words that carry a lot of weight, and these words should be closely examined.
We have a duty to acknowledge advances in science in understanding fetal development
During the oral arguments in last year’s Dobbs v Jackson Supreme Court case, Justice Sotomayor wrongly claimed that scientific knowledge of embryonic development and fetal pain had remained unchanged since 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Casey ruling. This is untrue. Scientific knowledge has changed significantly in the past three decades, to the benefit of our patients.
Four-dimensional ultrasound imaging now offers a detailed look at the human fetus even in the early second trimester, allowing physicians and medical professionals to better understand the milestones of fetal development.
We now know that a fetus at only 15 weeks’ gestation, a benchmark used by the state of Mississippi as the cut-off point for abortive procedures in the current law under consideration at the Supreme Court, can not only suck their thumb but can also recognize the voice of their mother—clear signs of neurological development in the preborn child. Due to advancements in ultrasound technology, we can now see this evidence of preborn life, along with many others, much more clearly than we could in 1992.
The science of fetal pain has also significantly changed since the Casey decision. Dr. Stuart Derbyshire’s oft-quoted 2010 study, referenced heavily by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other abortion advocates, stated that fetuses could not feel pain until at least 24 weeks, when neurons from the thalamus to the cortex begin to function. However, we now know that subcortical structures (brainstem and thalamus) can relay pain far earlier, with evidence of this as early as 12 weeks’ gestation.
This led to Dr. Derbyshire co-authoring a paper in the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Medical Ethics that essentially refuted his previous research due to advancements in scientific understanding of fetal pain, acknowledging that fetal human beings have the ability to feel pain from late in the first trimester.
We should be cautious when politicized language obscures facts about human development
The phrase fetal pain is not the only bit of language dividing good science from partisan politics. ACOG has also embraced a politicized lexicon. Its newly published “ACOG Guide to Language and Abortion” calls for medical professionals to avoid common phrases like “fetal heartbeat” and “elective abortion.” Even the phrase “abortion provider” should be avoided, ACOG tells us, because, “Using this phrase perpetuates the myth that they are not medical experts and that abortion care is the extent of their expertise.” ACOG asserts this despite the fact that the vast majority of OB-GYNs do not perform abortions, and non-specialists in women’s healthcare like radiologists and ophthalmologists have been caught performing the procedure.
As a physician who has delivered thousands of healthy babies but also comforted many other mothers after painful losses, I know that words matter. It is important that language is based on medical and scientific facts. By politicizing and cheapening the meaning of our words, we deceive our patients and compromise their care.
Justices Sotomayor and Jackson have a significant responsibility to rightly interpret our laws in light of the expanse of medical knowledge we now have of when a life begins.
True human equality can only be achieved when the most vulnerable among us have equal rights to the strongest. With that in mind, I encourage all of the Justices to set aside words that are politically expedient and instead to consider what is clear from the scientific evidence.
As women, we don’t need to fear the science of when life begins. We are not reliant on abortion in order to achieve great things. And with more women in positions of influence, we can build a culture based on greater support for women and children.