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May 16, 2014 4:43 PM True Science

By Ed Kilgore

So in the back-and-forth over his recent comments about climate change, Sen. Marco Rubio threw out a strange challenge on the Hannity show:

“All these people always wag their finger at me about ‘science’ and ‘settled science.’,” he told Hannity. “Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. Science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception. So I hope the next time that someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of scientists that say that human life begins at conception?’ I’d like to see someone ask that question.”

WaPo’s Philip Bump took him up on it:

We reached out to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an association comprised of a large majority of the nation’s ob-gyns. The organization’s executive vice president and CEO, Hal C Lawrence, III, MD, offered his response to Rubio.
Government agencies and American medical organizations agree that the scientific definition of pregnancy and the legal definition of pregnancy are the same: pregnancy begins upon the implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of a woman’s uterus. This typically takes place, if at all, between 5 and 9 days after fertilization of the egg - which itself can take place over the course of several days following sexual intercourse.
In other words: Consensus exists (if not unanimously), and the consensus is that uterine implantation is the moment at which pregnancy begins.
We presented that description to the senator’s office, asking if he wanted to clarify or moderate his statement. Brooke Sammon, the senator’s Deputy Press Secretary, told us that “Senator Rubio absolutely stands by the comment.”
There’s a blurry line between “pregnancy” and “life” in this discussion. When we asked ACOG if the two were interchangeable, we were told that the organization “approach[es] everything from a scientific perspective, and as such, our definition is for when pregnancy begins.” On the question of when life begins, then, the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus.
“Life” is something of a philosophical question, making Rubio’s dependence on a scientific argument — which, it hardly bears mentioning, is an argument about abortion — politically tricky. After all, if someone were to argue that life begins at implantation, it’s hard to find a moral argument against forms of birth control that prevent that from happening. If that someone were, say, running for president as a conservative Republican, that could be problematic.

Now this is a discussion that regular readers of this blog should find familiar. When antichoicers talk about “life beginning at conception,” they also mean “pregnancy” from the perspective of determining what is a “contraceptive” and what is an “abortifacient.” And they draw that line where few scientists or physicians draw it, and then either retreat into ontological arguments about “life” or simply (as Rubio seems to be doing) denying the actual position of scientists and physicians.

As Bump suggests, what all this jesuitical hair-splitting is really about is the determination of antichoicers to ban IUDs and Plan B contraceptives, even as they pretend to be mostly upset about Kermit Gosnell and late-term abortions. If Americans really understood that’s the dog whistle Republican pols are blowing when they talk about “life beginning at conception,” a lot of them might not be real happy at the GOP’s understanding of “science.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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