Sisterhood Blog

They Said Fetuses Do What?

By Sarah Seltzer

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Abortion should be banned because fetuses—male ones—are busy pleasuring themselves in the womb, didn’t you know? Yes, that is the logic that seemed to have come out of a legislator’s mouth this week. It appears that two of the Right Wing’s favorite bogeyman—abortion and masturbation—have come together in a perfect storm. These comments are giving all the recent “legitimate rape” blowups real competition for the most telling and disturbing words out of a male legislator’s mouth.

Adele Stan, reporting at RH Reality Check, got the story first. She explains the comments, which come in the context of a new and dangerous bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks and challenge Roe v. Wade.

As the House of Representatives gears up for Tuesday’s debate on HR 1797, a bill that would outlaw virtually all abortions 20 weeks post fertilization, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) argued in favor of banning abortions even earlier in pregnancy because, he said, male fetuses that age were already, shall we say, spanking the monkey. “Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful,” said Burgess, a former OB/GYN. “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?”

Yes, we don’t know for certain if Burgess was talking explicitly about masturbation, or just some sort of generic, more innocent “pleasure” that is felt equally by touching one’s face or between the legs. He hasn’t followed up on his statement as far as I know, but whatever he meant, the levels of Freudian weirdness in his words are almost too dense to unpack.

I mean, by Burgess’s logic, since the ladies with their abortions are attacking male fetuses who want to be feeling pleasure by touching themselves, next thing you know they’re going to complain when male fetuses check out female fetuses, make male fetuses do the dishes in the womb, and not let them play fetus golf with their fetus-buddies. It’s a crime!

Ultimately, of course, the root problem with Burgess’s statements, as it so often is with such remarks, is blatantly false science. Over at the Atlantic, Alexander Abad-Santos notes that one scientific study apparently showed a fetus masturbating—but contra to Burgess’s example, it was a female fetus, at 32 weeks, twice the gestational age as Rep. Burgess noted in his bizarre rant. Of course, female pleasure is antithetical to the anti-choice mindset Burgess subscribes to, so that detail was also elided.

And Dr. Jane Chi, an abortion provider on Twitter, said that every movement picked up on the ultrasound is not intentional.

Here’s another thing to consider: what the GOP and Burgess are doing is trying to shift the conversation about reproductive rights over to later abortion. Giving the fetus human-like qualities—even masturbation—makes us forget the compelling stories of abortion-seekers. Late abortion bans affect a rare and complicated group of cases but present a serious threat to Roe, and to women’s health and autonomy.

There are no masturbating 15 week old fetuses. But there are real threats to abortion rights.


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