Can fetuses masturbate?

The Week

To rally support for his anti-abortion bill, Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas tells Congress that fetuses can feel pleasure

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) caused a stir on Monday when he claimed that fetuses can masturbate at 15 weeks old, a supposed fact that he is using to drum up support for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would prohibit nearly all abortions after 22 weeks.

Here are his exact words, taken from the video below:

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?

By Burgess' logic, it is thus cruel to abort fetuses. Putting the political arguments for and against abortion aside, we wondered whether there is any truth to the claim that fetuses, um, pleasure themselves in the womb.

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Elizabeth Flock from U.S. News & World Report asked a doctor, Jeanne Conry, who is president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

We certainly can see a movement of a fetus during that time, but in terms of any knowledge about pleasure or pain — there are no data to assess. We don't know enough about the biology and the science.

For whatever reason in our country when it comes to abortion we make statements based not on the science but based on observations and on emotion. [U.S. News & World Report]

If no scientific data exists to back up the idea that fetuses can masturbate, why did Burgess mention it? Surely there were plenty of other arguments he could have used to try and convince his fellow lawmakers that abortion should be banned after 22 weeks.

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The most commonly cited "evidence" of fetuses masturbating comes from a 1996 letter written by two Italian doctors to The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

They recount a single observation of what they say was "a female fetus at 32 weeks' gestation touching the vulva with fingers of [her] right hand" focused "primarily on the region of the clitoris." After doing this for 20 minutes, the doctors said, the fetus experienced rapid muscle contractions before "finally she relaxed and rested."

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A single anecdote, of course, isn't scientific proof. Even if what the doctors saw was a female fetus masturbating, The Atlantic Wire's Alexander Abad-Santos notes, that fetus was 32 weeks old and probably around 3.5 pounds — much larger than a 15-week fetus, which usually weighs a few ounces.

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act — which has little chance of surviving the Senate — follows on the heels of similarly restrictive abortion bans attempted in states such as North Dakota and Arkansas.

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