The Corner

Politics & Policy

It’s Time for the Truth About Late-Term Abortions

Protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In posts earlier today, my colleagues Charlie Cooke and Kevin Williamson defended me from the New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg’s assertion that I show “contempt” for women when I worry that Virginia’s proposed Repeal Act would permit a woman to obtain a late-term abortion merely to deal with anxiety, depression, or the fear of the health effects of conventional delivery. The bill, after all, removes any required showing of severity before permitting a single doctor to agree to perform a late-term abortion to preserve the physical or mental health of the mother. The current law permits late-term abortions only when three doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy would result in substantial and irremediable harm to the mother’s health.

Here’s Goldberg’s contention, in context:

French appears to be worried that women will seek, and doctors will perform, late-term abortions for trivial reasons. But there’s contempt for women embedded in the idea that, absent legal prohibition, someone on the verge of giving birth might instead terminate her pregnancy to avoid the brutalities of labor.

“No matter what the law were, in real life, these things don’t happen,” said Frances Kissling, president of the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy and the former head of Catholics for a Free Choice. “I am not saying that there would not be one woman out of 20 million who decided at the 33rd week of pregnancy that she needed an abortion, and I would suggest that she probably does have mental health problems. However, this woman is not going to find anyone who will do this.”

Charlie and Kevin dispute the notion that one expresses contempt for a community when prescribing misconduct by that community. I want to deal with something else — the actual circumstances under which women seek late-term abortions. Is it because of health crises? Is it because of fetal abnormalities? Is it really true that “one woman out of 20 million” will decide late in her pregnancy that she needs an abortion? Is it really true that she’s “not going to find anyone who will do this” or that “cavalier” late-term abortions are — in Goldberg’s words — “mythical”?

Late-term abortion is, fortunately, relatively rare. According to the most recent CDC data, only 1.3 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks. However, given the sheer number of abortions in this country (638,169 reported to the CDC), that means there were at least 8,000 late-term abortions in the United States. As Jonah Goldberg notes today, the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute puts the number even higher, at roughly 12,000 late-term abortions per year. That’s a lot of babies dying late in pregnancy. To gain a sense of perspective, that number is comparable to the number of murders committed by firearms in the same time period.

So, why do these babies die? The Guttmacher Institute has looked at the reasons for late-term abortion, and the reasons are chilling. First, the top-line finding is clear: “[D]ata suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Instead, there were “five general profiles of women who sought later abortions, describing 80% of the sample.” These women 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 nulliparous [had never given birth].”

Interestingly, even in some of the anecdotes chosen by Guttmacher, the women describe their decision to have a late-term abortion as “easy” or “very easy.” They didn’t find out they were pregnant until later in the pregnancy, didn’t want the child, and aborted it. Their only challenge was raising the money or finding the clinic. The thought that they were killing a viable infant — a person who would could be raised in a loving home if the mother didn’t want her child — apparently doesn’t factor into their decision-making. It’s treated as casually as an early-term abortion.

This is the reality of late-term abortion in America. There are times when, no doubt, it’s the product of an anguished decision in the midst of a maternal or infant-health crisis, but that is not the norm. There are too many casual killings, there are too many cruel decisions, and even most Americans who support abortion rights recoil from the ugliness of the procedure. Women aren’t uniquely virtuous. They’re human beings, and any given collection of people will contain some number of bad actors. In the context of late-term abortion, restraining their worst impulses isn’t an act of contempt, it’s an act of mercy for a child otherwise condemned to die.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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