What You Should Know About Late-Term Abortion

by Jo Yurcaba

In preparation for the over-exaggerated political jargon and emotional hyperbole that make up Presidential campaign speeches, it's important to know the truth about contentious issues such as late-term abortion. Abortion, generally, is a dividing issue in Presidential campaigns, and late-term abortion, which is called partial-birth abortion by anti-choice activists, is even more divisive. Conservative politicians and anti-choice activists often say that late-term abortions dismember the fetus while it's alive, causing severe pain and horror, but this couldn't be further from the truth. They also want people to believe that late-term abortions are as common as abortions performed earlier in pregnancy, which also isn't true. So how do late-term abortions actually happen? It's a medical procedure that treats the fetus with respect, and it's very rare.

Late-term abortions make up one percent or fewer of all abortions in the U.S., according to the Guttmacher Institute. That means that 99 percent of all abortions are done before 20 weeks' gestation. Why does the 20-week mark matter? Because anti-choice activists often argue that 20 weeks is the point in a pregnancy at which a fetus is viable — when it can live outside of the womb. But there is no law that actually establishes a point of fetal viability, and that's because the Supreme Court wanted to leave that decision up to trained medical professionals. (Shocker!)

What Is A Late-Term Abortion?

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According to the American Pregnancy Association, abortions after 20 weeks are often performed via one of two procedures: dilation and extraction or dilation and evacuation. The procedures usually take two days and a hospital stay, and recovery time can take two more days after that, according to an interview with Susan Robinson, one of the four remaining late-term abortion providers in the country.

Doctors often insert laminaria sticks, which are made of an algae that absorbs moisture, into the vagina to dilate the cervix and induce labor, according to the APA. This can also be done with medication. Then, usually the next day, the doctor would anesthetize the patient and inject a chemical into the fetus' heart to stop it from beating. Finally, the baby is delivered through induced labor, and completely removed through the birth canal.

The baby is not "alive" for any part of either procedure, and is never cut apart or pulled out in pieces — elements which are often common components of the anti-choice narrative.

Where Can You Get A Late-Term Abortion?

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A late-term abortion, in most states, is any abortion performed after the arbitrarily-marked 20th week of pregnancy. When a woman decides that she needs to have a late-term abortion, she can make an appointment with a licensed doctor who performs late-term abortions in one of seven states where the procedure is available without any restrictions. Among those states, only four doctors provide abortions in the third trimester, and most of them have selection processes for prospective patients.

In every other state, there are a variety of restrictions that only allow women to obtain late-term abortions in certain circumstances. In some states, women can only obtain a late-term abortion if their physical health, mental health, or life is at risk. In other states, women can only obtain one if their physical health or life is at risk. And some states only allow late-term abortions if the woman's life is in immediate danger, according to National Journal. A small number of states also only allow late-term abortion until the point of pregnancy when a fetus can allegedly feel pain. Unfortunately, pain-capable legislation isn't based on medical science, and there is no consensus on when a fetus can feel pain. Lastly, there are states with restrictions that only allow late-term abortions until viability, which is often determined by physicians on a case-by-case basis. A federal 20-week abortion ban passed in the House in May.

Who Has Late-Term Abortions?

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Some people are quick to call women who seek late-term abortions "murderers," but knowing what we do about what these abortions are like — the amount of money they cost, the amount of time and travel they require, and the development of the fetus — it makes sense that you'd need a damn good reason to go through all that trouble. According to Slate, many women who seek late-term abortions weren't "waiting" to get an abortion. They were waiting for their healthy babies, but when it came time for comprehensive fetal testing, such as anatomical sonograms or ultrasounds of the heart, they found out that their children had some irreparable problem. Some genetic abnormalities can result in dozens of surgeries in the first year of life, while others can leave a person dependent on care for a lifetime.

Further, some women who seek late-term abortions find out that their child will die within the first few hours of life, and that those few hours would be painful for the child, so they choose to let the child die in a pain-free way. (There's a great documentary about these cases on Netflix, called After Tiller.)

A study by the Guttmacher Institute found that the majority of women who had late-term abortions often fit at least one of these five profiles: "They were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and had never had children."

I don't know about you, but when my good ol' human empathy kicks in, I would feel pretty terrible forcing a woman who found out that her child will live nothing but a life of pain to deliver her baby. Further, I would feel just as bad, if not worse, forcing a woman whose partner might hurt her and the future child to have the child, or who might hurt herself if she does have the child and cannot take care of it. In these cases, anti-choice advocates often turn to adoption and say it would solve everything. An RH Reality Check column by an adoption counselor shows that that isn't the case. Further, many children don't get adopted, and end up in the foster care system for most of their youth.

Robinson spoke about the women who receive her services candidly and with amazing understanding, according to The Hairpin:

I think that the public perceives first of all that late abortion could be completely eliminated if people would only get their act together and have their abortions earlier, which is completely untrue. I also think that people assume that women do this casually — that they’ve known they were pregnant for thirty weeks and then were on their way down to the hair salon and they saw the abortion clinic and they decided to just walk in to avoid the inconveniences of motherhood. That also is completely untrue. No matter how available birth control and first-trimester and second-trimester abortion is, you are always going to have the need for later abortions. A woman would never do this casually. The procedure lasts three or four days, and is fairly disagreeable.

Ultimately, women who receive late-term abortions deserve respect, autonomy, and privacy. The anti-choice narrative surrounding late-term abortion causes more pain for women who are already making difficult personal decisions, and it does this through medically false, exaggerated information.

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