Focus on ‘late-term abortions’ an attempt to end all abortions

In his Feb. 5, 2019, State of the Union address, President Trump asked Congress to ban “late-term abortion” (a phrase used by abortion opponents to refer to abortions performed after about 21 weeks of pregnancy), repeating a talking point popular among Republicans recently: that Democrats want to pass legislation that would “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth” as a common form of abortion.

We cannot brush off this lie as just another of the president’s many falsehoods because this particular lie serves a specific and dangerous purpose. The GOP wants to drum up outrage over so-called “late-term abortion” as a way to distract from their extreme — and deeply unpopular — move to ban early abortions and make it impossible for women to end their pregnancies at all.

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized abortion as a constitutional right, said that abortion is allowed until the time a fetus could survive outside the womb, a point (known as viability) that medical science now generally considers to be at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Supreme Court has also specified that abortion is legal after viability in certain cases. When they occur, it is usually because the fetus has been found to have a fatal condition that could not be detected earlier, such as a severe malformation of the brain, or because the mother’s life or health is at serious risk.

Late-term abortions are very rare. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about 1.3% of abortions performed in the United States in 2015 occurred in or after the 21st week of pregnancy, which includes a period that is about three weeks prior to viability. Abortions after 24 weeks comprise less than 1% of all abortions. The vast majority (91%) of abortions take place at or before 13 weeks of pregnancy. 

New York’s Reproductive Health Act — the law referenced by President Trump in his address to Congress — was passed to make sure the state would continue to ensure the right to an abortion if the Supreme Court were to overturn all or part of Roe v. Wade. Like the Supreme Court, the New York law says a health provider may perform an abortion in the state before 24 weeks — and later if the fetus is not considered viable or if the procedure is considered necessary to protect the woman’s life or health.

If the GOP wants to curb later abortions, they could remove the hurdles women face to access an early one. But the GOP’s point has never been to stop late abortions, but to stop all abortions.

The problem for Republicans is that this is decidedly not what Americans want. Support for Roe v. Wade is at an historic high. Of those surveyed, 58% say abortion should be legal in “all or most cases.” Those are difficult numbers for the GOP, the most difficult they’ve faced in years. Pontificating about “third trimester abortions” or “infanticide” shifts the focus away from their unpopular agenda.

The next time you hear a Republican talking about late-term abortion, remember what they’re really arguing: that women are not to be trusted, that we should ignore how their laws make early abortion nearly impossible, and that faux outrage should trump the health of women and families.

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