Congressman Michael Burgess says yes, but the science isn’t as clear.
During debates over a bill that would outlaw all abortions after 20 weeks, Texas Rep. Michael Burgess argued for an even broader ban, making the case that the limit should be pushed even earlier. Why? Because, according to Burgess, who was a former obstetrician-gynecologist, fetuses as early as 15 weeks can feel pleasure and pain.
In the hearing, he said: “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?”
Pain receptors (nociceptors) are present throughout the unborn child’s entire body and nerves link these receptors to the brain’s thalamus and subcortical plate by no later than 20 weeks after fertilization. By 8 weeks after fertilization, the unborn child reacts to touch. After 20 weeks, the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult human, for example, by recoiling.
But is Burgess’ notion that fetuses can feel the effects of masturbation accurate?
U.S. News and World Report says the argument for fetal masturbation is linked to a study from the 90s:
Any media reports on masturbation by fetuses can almost exclusively be traced back to a single letter written by two OB/GYNs in Italy in 1996 and published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The letter related an anecdote in which the two doctors had “recently observed a female fetus at 32 weeks gestation touching the vulva with the fingers of the right hand” before the female fetus experienced prolonged spasms, and “finally…relaxed and rested.”
But a significant amount of research within the last year questions whether a fetus can feel pain before 20 weeks. In one review, published in 2012 in The Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, another pair of Italian researchers reported that while it was difficult to truly determine when the first feelings of pain emerged, such sensations likely begin in the third trimester. They wrote:
Our data show that there is consistent evidence of the possibility for the fetus to experience pain in the third trimester, and this evidence is weaker before this date and null in the first half of pregnancy. When the development of the fetus is equal to that of a premature baby in whom we commonly measure and treat pain, we should suppose that the fetus can feel pain and, in the case of fetal surgery, treat it.
Whether these sensations are felt before 20 weeks isn’t clear, says Dr. F. Session Cole, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine and a neonatologist who cares for newborns born at 22 to 24 weeks, or 16 to 18 weeks before their due dates. In his experience, babies born in this gestational age range do respond to external stimuli, like having their blood drawn; they don’t show significant changes in their heart rates, blood pressures or blood oxygen levels. Still, he argues that it’s difficult to extrapolate these results to fetuses, because the womb is a distinctly different environment.
Although Cole is not an expert on fetal development, he says that based on the current research, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest they do feel sensations such as pleasure when they are as young as 15 weeks old. “My reading of the data concerning human fetal nerve and brain development suggest that fetuses prior to about 24 weeks are not able to feel pain or pleasure. While I certainly respect Representative Dr. Burgess’ remarks concerning his observations about fetuses prior to 20 weeks gestation, I would have a difficult time personally agreeing with them based on my own experience,” Cole said in an email to TIME.
You can watch Burgess’ commentary here: