This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
Viability—the potential for a fetus to survive outside the womb—is a core dividing line in American law. For almost 50 years, the Supreme Court of the United States has struck down laws that ban all or most abortions, ruling that women's constitutional rights include choosing to end pregnancies before the point of viability. Once viability is reached, however, states have a "compelling interest" in protecting fetal life. At that point, states can choose to ban or significantly restrict later-term abortions provided states allow an exception to preserve the life or health of the mother.
This distinction between a fetus that could survive outside its mother's body, albeit with significant medical intervention, and one that could not, is at the heart of the court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. The framework of viability remains central to the country's abortion law today, even as some states have passed laws in the name of protecting women's health that significantly undermine Roe. Over the last 30 years, the Supreme Court has upheld these laws, which have the effect of restricting pre-viability abortion access, imposing mandatory waiting periods, requiring parental consent for minors, and placing restrictions on abortion providers.
Viability has always been a slippery notion on which to pin legal rights.
Today, the Guttmacher Institute reports that more than half of American women live in states whose laws are considered hostile to abortion, largely as a result of these intrusions on pre-viability abortion access. Nevertheless, the viability framework stands: while states can pass pre-viability abortion restrictions that (ostensibly) protect the health of the woman or that strike some kind a balance between women's rights and fetal life, it is only after viability that they can completely favor fetal life over the rights of the woman (with limited exceptions when the woman's life is threatened). As a result, judges have struck down certain states' so-called heartbeat laws, which tried to prohibit abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat (as early as six weeks of pregnancy). Bans on abortion after 12 or 15 weeks' gestation have also been reversed.
Now, with a new Supreme Court Justice expected to be hostile to abortion rights, advances in the care of preterm babies and ongoing research on artificial wombs suggest that the point of viability is already sooner than many assume and could soon be moved radically earlier in gestation, potentially providing a legal basis for earlier and earlier abortion bans.
Viability has always been a slippery notion on which to pin legal rights. It represents an inherently variable and medically shifting moment in the pregnancy timeline that the Roe majority opinion declined to firmly define, noting instead that "[v]iability is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks." Even in 1977, this definition was an optimistic generalization. Every baby is different, and while some 28-week infants born the year Roe was decided did indeed live into adulthood, most died at or shortly after birth. The prognosis for infants born at 24 weeks was much worse.
Today, a baby born at 28 weeks' gestation can be expected to do much better, largely due to the development of surfactant treatment in the early 1990s to help ease the air into babies' lungs. Now, the majority of 24-week-old babies can survive, and several very premature babies, born just shy of 22 weeks' gestation, have lived into childhood. All this variability raises the question: Should the law take a very optimistic, if largely unrealistic, approach to defining viability and place it at 22 weeks, even though the overall survival rate for those preemies remains less than 10% today? Or should the law recognize that keeping a premature infant alive requires specialist care, meaning that actual viability differs not just pregnancy-to-pregnancy but also by healthcare facility and from country to country? A 24-week premature infant born in a rural area or in a developing nation may not be viable as a practical matter, while one born in a major U.S. city with access to state-of-the-art care has a greater than 70% chance of survival. Just as some extremely premature newborns survive, some full-term babies die before, during, or soon after birth, regardless of whether they have access to advanced medical care.
To be accurate, viability should be understood as pregnancy-specific and should take into account the healthcare resources available to that woman. But state laws can't capture this degree of variability by including gestation limits in their abortion laws. Instead, many draw a somewhat arbitrary line at 22, 24, or 28 weeks' gestation, regardless of the particulars of the pregnancy or the medical resources available in that state.
As variable and resource-dependent as viability is today, science may soon move that point even earlier. Ectogenesis is a term coined in 1923 for the growth of an organism outside the body. Long considered science fiction, this technology has made several key advances in the past few years, with scientists announcing in 2017 that they had successfully gestated premature lamb fetuses in an artificial womb for four weeks. Currently in development for use in human fetuses between 22 and 23 weeks' gestation, this technology will almost certainly seek to push viability earlier in pregnancy.
Ectogenesis and other improvements in managing preterm birth deserve to be celebrated, offering new hope to the parents of very premature infants. But in the U.S., and in other nations whose abortion laws are fixed to viability, these same advances also pose a threat to abortion access. Abortion opponents have long sought to move the cutoff for legal abortions, and it is not hard to imagine a state prohibiting all abortions after 18 or 20 weeks by arguing that medical advances render this stage "the new viability," regardless of whether that level of advanced care is available to women in that state. If ectogenesis advances further, the limit could be moved to keep pace.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 90% of abortions in America are performed at or before 13 weeks, meaning that in the short term, only a small number women would be affected by shifting viability standards. Yet these women are in difficult situations and deserve care and consideration. Research has shown that women seeking later terminations often did not recognize that they were pregnant or had their dates quite wrong, while others report that they had trouble accessing a termination earlier in pregnancy, were afraid to tell their partner or parents, or only recently received a diagnosis of health problems with the fetus.
Shifts in viability over the past few decades have already affected these women, many of whom report struggling to find a provider willing to perform a termination at 18 or 20 weeks out of concern that the woman may have her dates wrong. Ever-earlier gestational limits would continue this chilling effect, making doctors leery of terminating a pregnancy that might be within 2–4 weeks of each new ban. Some states' existing gestational limits on abortion are also inconsistent with prenatal care, which includes genetic testing between 12 and 20 weeks' gestation, as well as an anatomy scan to check the fetus's organ development performed at approximately 20 weeks. If viability moves earlier, prenatal care will be further undermined.
Perhaps most importantly, earlier and earlier abortion bans are inconsistent with the rights and freedoms on which abortion access is based, including recognition of each woman's individual right to bodily integrity and decision-making authority over her own medical care. Those rights and freedoms become meaningless if abortion bans encroach into the weeks that women need to recognize they are pregnant, assess their options, seek medical advice, and access appropriate care. Fetal viability, with its shifting goalposts, isn't the best framework for abortion protection in light of advancing medical science.
Ideally, whether to have an abortion would be a decision that women make in consultation with their doctors, free of state interference. The vast majority of women already make this decision early in pregnancy; the few who come to the decision later do so because something has gone seriously wrong in their lives or with their pregnancies. If states insist on drawing lines based on historical measures of viability, at 24 or 26 or 28 weeks, they should stick with those gestational limits and admit that they no longer represent actual viability but correspond instead to some form of common morality about when the fetus has a protected, if not absolute, right to life. Women need a reasonable amount of time to make careful and informed decisions about whether to continue their pregnancies precisely because these decisions have a lasting impact on their bodies and their lives. To preserve that time, legislators and the courts should decouple abortion rights from ectogenesis and other advances in the care of extremely premature infants that move the point of viability ever earlier.
[Editor's Note: This article was updated after publication to reflect Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation. To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the e-reader version.]
Hours after a baby is born, its heel is pricked with a lancet. Drops of the infant's blood are collected on a porous card, which is then mailed to a state laboratory. The dried blood spots are screened for around thirty conditions, including phenylketonuria (PKU), the metabolic disorder that kick-started this kind of newborn screening over 60 years ago. In the U.S., parents are not asked for permission to screen their child. Newborn screening programs are public health programs, and the assumption is that no good parent would refuse a screening test that could identify a serious yet treatable condition in their baby.
Learning as much as you can about your child's health might seem like a natural obligation of parenting. But it's an assumption that I think needs to be much more closely examined.
Today, with the introduction of genome sequencing into clinical medicine, some are asking whether newborn screening goes far enough. As the cost of sequencing falls, should parents take a more expansive look at their children's health, learning not just whether they have a rare but treatable childhood condition, but also whether they are at risk for untreatable conditions or for diseases that, if they occur at all, will strike only in adulthood? Should genome sequencing be a part of every newborn's care?
It's an idea that appeals to Anne Wojcicki, the founder and CEO of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe, who in a 2016 interview with The Guardian newspaper predicted that having newborns tested would soon be considered standard practice—"as critical as testing your cholesterol"—and a new responsibility of parenting. Wojcicki isn't the only one excited to see everyone's genes examined at birth. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and perhaps the most prominent advocate of genomics in the United States, has written that he is "almost certain … that whole-genome sequencing will become part of new-born screening in the next few years." Whether that would happen through state-mandated screening programs, or as part of routine pediatric care—or perhaps as a direct-to-consumer service that parents purchase at birth or receive as a baby-shower gift—is not clear.
Learning as much as you can about your child's health might seem like a natural obligation of parenting. But it's an assumption that I think needs to be much more closely examined, both because the results that genome sequencing can return are more complex and more uncertain than one might expect, and because parents are not actually responsible for their child's lifelong health and well-being.
What is a parent supposed to do about such a risk except worry?
Existing newborn screening tests look for the presence of rare conditions that, if identified early in life, before the child shows any symptoms, can be effectively treated. Sequencing could identify many of these same kinds of conditions (and it might be a good tool if it could be targeted to those conditions alone), but it would also identify gene variants that confer an increased risk rather than a certainty of disease. Occasionally that increased risk will be significant. About 12 percent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer during their lives, while those who have a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene variant have around a 70 percent chance of developing the disease. But for many—perhaps most—conditions, the increased risk associated with a particular gene variant will be very small. Researchers have identified over 600 genes that appear to be associated with schizophrenia, for example, but any one of those confers only a tiny increase in risk for the disorder. What is a parent supposed to do about such a risk except worry?
Sequencing results are uncertain in other important ways as well. While we now have the ability to map the genome—to create a read-out of the pairs of genetic letters that make up a person's DNA—we are still learning what most of it means for a person's health and well-being. Researchers even have a name for gene variants they think might be associated with a disease or disorder, but for which they don't have enough evidence to be sure. They are called "variants of unknown (or uncertain) significance (VUS), and they pop up in most people's sequencing results. In cancer genetics, where much research has been done, about 1 in 5 gene variants are reclassified over time. Most are downgraded, which means that a good number of VUS are eventually designated benign.
While one parent might reasonably decide to learn about their child's risk for a condition about which nothing can be done medically, a different, yet still thoroughly reasonable, parent might prefer to remain ignorant so that they can enjoy the time before their child is afflicted.
Then there's the puzzle of what to do about results that show increased risk or even certainty for a condition that we have no idea how to prevent. Some genomics advocates argue that even if a result is not "medically actionable," it might have "personal utility" because it allows parents to plan for their child's future needs, to enroll them in research, or to connect with other families whose children carry the same genetic marker.
Finding a certain gene variant in one child might inform parents' decisions about whether to have another—and if they do, about whether to use reproductive technologies or prenatal testing to select against that variant in a future child. I have no doubt that for some parents these personal utility arguments are persuasive, but notice how far we've now strayed from the serious yet treatable conditions that motivated governments to set up newborn screening programs, and to mandate such testing for all.
Which brings me to the other problem with the call for sequencing newborn babies: the idea that even if it's not what the law requires, it's what good parents should do. That idea is very compelling when we're talking about sequencing results that show a serious threat to the child's health, especially when interventions are available to prevent or treat that condition. But as I have shown, many sequencing results are not of this type.
While one parent might reasonably decide to learn about their child's risk for a condition about which nothing can be done medically, a different, yet still thoroughly reasonable, parent might prefer to remain ignorant so that they can enjoy the time before their child is afflicted. This parent might decide that the worry—and the hypervigilence it could inspire in them—is not in their child's best interest, or indeed in their own. This parent might also think that it should be up to the child, when he or she is older, to decide whether to learn about his or her risk for adult-onset conditions, especially given that many adults at high familial risk for conditions like Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease choose never to be tested. This parent will value the child's future autonomy and right not to know more than they value the chance to prepare for a health risk that won't strike the child until 40 or 50 years in the future.
Parents are not obligated to learn about their children's risk for a condition that cannot be prevented, has a small risk of occurring, or that would appear only in adulthood.
Contemporary understandings of parenting are famously demanding. We are asked to do everything within our power to advance our children's health and well-being—to act always in our children's best interests. Against that backdrop, the need to sequence every newborn baby's genome might seem obvious. But we should be skeptical. Many sequencing results are complex and uncertain. Parents are not obligated to learn about their children's risk for a condition that cannot be prevented, has a small risk of occurring, or that would appear only in adulthood. To suggest otherwise is to stretch parental responsibilities beyond the realm of childhood and beyond factors that parents can control.