Politics & Policy

On Late-Term Abortion, Liberals Are the Real Science Deniers

Planned Parenthood supporters dressed as characters from Handmaid’s Tale on Capitol Hill in June. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Opposition to a 20-week abortion ban is rooted in the denial of recent medical advances.

For years, liberals have tarred those who question climate-change research as “deniers” of scientific facts. The label was meant to equate disagreeing with computer models that predict a rise in temperatures with denying the Holocaust. It’s a clever tactic but also a double-edged sword, since the Left’s faith in science is highly selective. When it comes to late-term abortions, liberals are the real science deniers.

The Left’s hypocrisy is on display again this week, as the House has voted once again to pass a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Liberals are asserting that the bill is unconstitutional because the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey decisions guaranteed the right to abortion until the fetus became viable on its own — a development that Roe placed at 24–28 weeks and its successor said could occur as early as 23 weeks owing to “advances in neonatal care.” Liberals also assert that a prenatal infant of that age cannot survive or feel pain, and further claim that late-term-abortion bans are not attempts to save lives, but rather thinly disguised efforts to interfere with the right of mothers to choose the procedure and the thin edge of the wedge toward total abortion bans.

That’s the position championed by Planned Parenthood, which continues to throw money at Democratic candidates at a rate that makes the National Rifle Association’s contributions to Republicans look like chump change. The problem is that the position is rooted in a refusal to acknowledge medical advances that have occurred since Roe and its follow-up.

A fetus was an abstract concept in 1973, when Roe was decided. There were no sonograms portraying babies in utero at various stages of development. Nor had medicine advanced to the point where extremely premature babies had a chance of survival. But as with virtually every other aspect of medicine, technology and decades of research have changed our understanding of the subject.

More than two years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that studies had proven that infants at 22 and 23 weeks of gestation have a decent chance of survival outside the womb if given adequate treatment. This was reported on the front page of the New York Times, and subsequent research will likely further lower the age of viability. But opponents of late-term abortion bans have stubbornly ignored these developments.

Given the incontrovertible fact that babies who are still being legally aborted could live outside of the womb, the moral rationale for opposing late-term-abortion bans has disappeared. Nor is it reasonable to assert, as opponents of the ban continue to do, that a viable infant at that age would be incapable of feeling pain.

In order to justify opposition to the 20-week ban, Democrats must not merely ignore the moral and religious arguments that motivate pro-life advocates. They must now also pretend that the revolution in neonatal care that has occurred since Roe never happened. More to the point, Democrats who have treated opposition to any limits on abortion as a litmus test of support for the rights of women must come to terms with the fact that their extremism on the issue has led them to defend not so much a right to “choose” as a procedure indistinguishable from infanticide.

Opponents of the ban are right about one point: Many in the pro-life movement hope prohibitions such as this one will be the first steps toward reversing Roe and ending legal abortion. In this sense, Planned Parenthood’s position on late-term abortions is similar to the NRA’s opposition to even the most anodyne and meaningless gun-control measures. Just as the NRA sees any limits on gun rights as a move toward repealing the Second Amendment, Planned Parenthood worries that common-sense limits on abortion supported by most Americans will lead to reversal of Roe.

But one doesn’t have to oppose abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, as pro-lifers do, to understand that the discussion on late-term procedures must be informed by science. The moral and political landscape of the abortion debate has been altered by the medical advances of the last half-century. To deny that this is so requires a determination to ignore science that far exceeds even the positions of the most extreme global-warming skeptics.

Moreover, given that the current bill includes the usual exceptions for protecting the life of the mother as well as victims of rape or incest, the notion that the measure is an instrument of oppression of women is absurd.

When it comes to late-term abortions, science has forever altered the debate.

It is likely that pro-lifers are being wildly optimistic if they think the House’s 20-week ban — which, like previous attempts, will probably fall victim to a Democratic filibuster in the Senate — will ever lead to a general ban on all abortion, since polls continue to show that support for early-term abortions is still strong. A total ban on abortion is no more likely than the repeal of the Second Amendment.

Yet when it comes to late-term abortions, science has forever altered the debate. So long as Planned Parenthood has the political muscle to force Democrats to back its position, the organization will continue to have to pretend that medicine hasn’t made any progress since 1973. That may please liberal donors. But it also means that on abortion, the deniers of science are on the left, not the right.


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