The Corner

Politics & Policy

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Elective Late-Term Abortion

The Washington Post Company building in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Last weekend, I wrote an opinion article for the Outlook section of the Washington Post, called “How Democrats purged ‘safe, legal, rare’ from the party.” The piece detailed how Democratic politicians now nearly uniformly support policies protecting elective abortion, with no restrictions whatsoever, at any stage of pregnancy.

Yesterday, the Post published two letters to the editor responding to my piece, one of which read as follows:

“Abortion on demand” in the third trimester just does not exist. Women who need abortions in late pregnancy have been told by a doctor that their baby has some condition — such as microcephaly or a major, irreparable heart defect — that will make it impossible for that baby to live. Under these terribly difficult circumstances, women may decide it is best for their mental and physical health to terminate the pregnancy. They don’t want to; they have to. And even if they did want to, no reputable doctor would abort a viable fetus, because they are forbidden to, both ethically and legally. There is no such thing as abortion on demand in the third trimester, and to claim there is, or that anyone supports it, is a lie. [Emphases added.]

This is worth clearing up, if only because it’s a common claim from supporters of unlimited abortion rights, who often wish to disguise the fact that their position entails allowing the elective abortion of viable fetuses. Thanks to medical advancements, the point of fetal viability now falls somewhere around 21 or 22 weeks’ gestation, the earliest a premature infant has been able to survive after birth.

Abortion-rights supporters often like to claim that abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation are rare. According to estimates from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, about 1.3 percent of annual abortions in the U.S. occur after 20 weeks, which does sound rare — until you consider that the Guttmacher also estimates about 926,000 annual abortions, meaning that about 12,000 take place after viability. As Ramesh Ponnuru often points out, that means there are more post-viability abortions each year than gun homicides, according to the most recent FBI estimates.

Plenty of women obtain abortions in the third trimester for reasons other than a fetal-health condition (and even then, it remains debatable whether it’s “medically necessary” to kill an unborn human being because he or she is diagnosed with a developmental or biological disability). For instance, here’s an interview with one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performs abortions in the last three months of pregnancy, in which she says, “a large percentage of our patients had no idea that they were pregnant.” Here’s more from her comments:

They think they just got pregnant. They have no idea they’re in their 24th week. So they make an appointment for an abortion, and it takes a few weeks, and they have their ultrasound and find out that they’re at 27 weeks, which is too far for an abortion anywhere. So then what happens? They either give up or have a baby, or they go on the Internet and they find us.

In other words, this woman’s clients frequently seek and obtain elective abortions in the third trimester. There’s also Southwestern Women’s Options, an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., that performs elective abortions through 32 weeks’ gestation, well into the third trimester. The clinic offers abortions after 32 weeks on a case-by-case basis.

And the evidence for this phenomenon isn’t merely anecdotal. Consider this 2013 Guttmacher article, which says “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Rather, they most often do so for reasons such as “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 nulliparous.”

Finally, if Democratic lawmakers didn’t support late-term abortion on demand — as the author of the Post letter to the editor claims — presumably they would support laws limiting abortion after fetal viability. But they don’t, as my initial article noted, and in fact many of the current presidential candidates back a federal bill that would nullify any such law implemented at the state level.

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