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Fact Check: Gov. Reeves Falsely Says 15-Week Fetuses Survive Outside the Womb

a screenshot of Governor Tate Reeves on CNN's state of the union
In a June 6, 2021, CNN State of the Union interview, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told host Jake Tapper that fetuses can survive outside the womb at 15-weeks gestation. Medical studies have found that the earliest a fetus can survive outside the womb is 22 weeks. Screencap courtesy CNN

Moments after declaring the importance of “understanding and appreciating science” when it comes to abortion issues, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves erroneously claimed that 15-week-old fetuses can survive outside the womb. That is at least seven weeks earlier than the point at which fetal viability becomes even marginally possible, scientific studies show.

The governor made his remarks during an interview with CNN anchor Jake Tapper while discussing an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case about the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban—a law Reeves helped pass when he presided over the Mississippi Senate in 2018. 

‘The Supreme Court Made A Mistake In The ’70s’

Tapper asked Reeves if he hoped the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, will result in the overturn of Roe v. Wade, allowing states to re-enact broad bans on abortion.

“For people such as myself that are pro-life, I believe that the Supreme Court made a mistake in the 1970s. But that’s not the issue that’s at stake before the court hopefully when the arguments are heard sometime in the fall,” the governor said. “… The fact is, we know so much more in America today about the formation of young children in the womb than we did when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.” 

An abortion rights protester holds up a clothes hanger with the words, “Never Again,” in front of the Mississippi Capitol Building during a May 2019 protest against Mississippi’s 2018 and 2019 abortion bans. Photo by Ashton Pittman

In its Roe opinion, the Supreme Court majority found that states cannot deny women the right to obtain abortions prior to fetal viability.

“What we know now, Jake, is we know that the heart has partially formed at 15 weeks, we know that the baby in the womb is practicing breathing, we know that most internal organs have started to form, and we believe that that child is viable outside the womb,” the Mississippi governor said. “So the question is not are you going to overturn Roe v. Wade. The question is—the science has changed, and therefore it makes sense for the court to review their decisions from the past and this is a vehicle for them to do it.”

But the State of Mississippi has already acknowledged in a U.S. Supreme Court brief that fetuses cannot survive outside the womb at 15 weeks and that, even with medical advancements since Roe v. Wade, viability does not become possible until around 22 weeks. Full-term pregnancies last 39 or 40 weeks.

Study: None Born Before 22 Weeks Survived

A 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that studied infants born before 27 weeks gestation found that none born earlier than 22 weeks gestation survived. The study included 24 hospitals and examined 4,987 births that occurred from 2006 to 2011.

Credit: New England Journal of Medicine

“Two of 129 infants born before 22 weeks of gestation who weighed 400 g or more received active treatment,” the study said. “These patients were born at 21 weeks 0 days and at 21 weeks 4 days, at different hospitals. All infants born before 22 weeks of gestation died within 12 hours after birth.”

Among infants born at 22 weeks gestation overall, only 5.1% survived. But among those born at 22 weeks gestation who received active treatment, 23.1% survived. Still, even among those who received active treatment, only 15.4% survived “without severe impairment” and just 9% survived “without moderate or severe impairment.” 

At 23 weeks gestation, survival rates increased significantly to 23.6% overall and 33.3% among those who received active treatment. By 26 weeks gestation, survival rates among infants who received “active treatment” rose to 99.8%, the study found.

Supreme Court Decision Expected In 2022

Mississippi law currently bans abortion after 20 weeks gestation, but the only abortion clinic in the state does not perform abortions after 16 weeks, so abortion rights groups have not challenged the current law. The state’s 15-week ban, which makes an exception for a woman’s health but not for rape or incest, is currently barred from taking effect while the issue is litigated in court.

A federal judge in Jackson ruled that the law was unconstitutional under the Roe v. Wade precedent; the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld that ruling. But Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch is asking the U.S. Supreme Court, which grew more conservative with former President Trump’s three appointees, to reconsider at least some elements of the 1973 precedent in light of potential future medical advancements. She does not deny that 15 weeks is pre-viability.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (left) joined with Attorney General Lynn Fitch (center) and then-Mississippi State Sen. Gary Jackson (right) on Jan. 22, 2020, the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to pray against abortion. In a Supreme Court brief, Fitch conceded that fetuses are not viable at 15-weeks, but argued that decisions on the legality of abortion bans should not be based on “viability” measures because future medical advancements could change that. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves.

“A strict viability line ties ‘a state’s interest in unborn children to developments in obstetrics, not to developments in the unborn.’ … For example, in the 1970s, Mississippi could not have prohibited abortion of a 24-week-old fetus because that fetus would not have been viable. Today, Mississippi could enact such a law,” Fitch told the U.S. Supreme Court in the petition.

The nation’s high court will hear the case in the fall, likely issuing a decision on the matter sometime in 2022. Fitch could later ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling against a 2019 Mississippi law that lawmakers tried to use to ban abortions once a heartbeat becomes detectable, which typically happens at around six weeks gestation.

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