viability

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

In yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion — City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983 — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found herself pondering the potential impact of advanced medical technology on the trimester framework at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Hang in there with me for a moment. I am bringing this up because the information is highly relevant to news coverage of the bitter debates surrounding efforts to pass a “heartbeat” bill in Georgia. That was the subject of recent post by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., that ran with this headline: “Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'.”

Just to be clear: I agree with Bobby that this particular Atlanta Journal-Constitution article contained a wider than normal range of voices explaining how different groups view that abortion legislation. That’s good. However, there was one crucial, and I mean CRUCIAL, point in the article that confused me. Digging into that topic a bit, I found more confusion — at AJC.com and in some other news outlets, as well.

In the end, I will be asking a journalism question, not a question about law or science.

Let’s walk into this carefully, beginning with this long quote from Justice O’Connor in 1983:

Just as improvements in medical technology inevitably will move forward the point at which the state may regulate for reasons of maternal health, different technological improvements will move backward the point of viability at which the state may proscribe abortions except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. … In 1973, viability before 28 weeks was considered unusual. However, recent studies have demonstrated increasingly earlier fetal viability. It is certainly reasonable to believe that fetal viability in the first trimester of pregnancy may be possible in the not too distant future.

The Roe framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.

This is, of course, precisely what is happening. At this point, it is commonly accepted that the viability of unborn children — weight is crucial — has moved back to between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Will science make even more progress there, in terms of helping premies survive outside the womb?

Now, onto the “heartbeat” bill debates. When can scientists detect the heartbeat of an unborn child? That would be six weeks into the pregnancy. Parents can usually hear the heartbeat, with assistance, at nine to 10 weeks. Note this passage in the story that Bobby critiqued:

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