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The Reality of Late-Term Abortion in America

By John S. Acton, Contributing Writer

Early in the third presidential debate on October 20, Secretary Hillary Clinton defended late-term abortion. “Late-term” usually refers to an abortion 20 weeks or later into a pregnancy; the youngest known surviving pre-mature child, Amillia Taylor, was born at just under 22 weeks. As part of her defense, Clinton mentioned the heartbreaking situations that result in women deciding to terminate their pregnancies. In the days following the debate, publications like the Huffington Post and the New York Times corroborated this narrative, printing pertinent anecdotes from women across the country. The stories follow a similar trajectory: A woman and her partner are preparing to have their baby when something goes tragically awry, guaranteeing that the child will be unable to survive birth, sometimes even jeopardizing the life of the mother. The couple then makes the difficult decision to abort this beloved child, rather than go through a risky and painful process that will only result in the child’s ultimate death.

Such episodes are unambiguously heart wrenching. Any conversation about late-term abortion must remember these women and their situations, lest laws be passed that are callous to their circumstances. But, wittingly or not, these tragedies are being exploited—forced to fit an intellectually dishonest political narrative that disregards the lives of thousands of children who could survive outside the womb.

It’s not difficult to craft a ban on late-term abortion that includes exceptions for threats to the life of the mother or fatal anomalies in the child. Of course, the exact details of such exceptions would have to be debated through the normal legislative process—that’s the case with any policy deliberation. But there’s no way to justify a categorical opposition to late-term abortion bans just because cases exist where exceptions may be appropriate.

In truth, purely elective late-term abortions are common, while fetal anomalies are tragic outliers. A 2013 study published by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute found that fetal anomaly was not one of the primary drivers of late-term abortion. Rather, late-term abortions are usually of entirely healthy pregnancies where the woman was either unable to receive an earlier abortion (often due to a failure to recognize the pregnancy or a logistical delay) or changed her mind about keeping the child (often after a falling out with a spouse or partner). While that particular study did not give exact percentages for each motivation, a 1988 study from the same institute revealed that fetal anomaly played a role in only two percent of late-term abortions.

According to the aforementioned 2013 study, there are approximately 15,000 annual late-term abortions in the United States. For comparison’s sake, there were 10,945 gun-related homicides in America in 2014. Unless the percentage of late-term abortions due to fetal anomalies has increased by more than tenfold in the past thirty years, we are left with an unsettling reality: The abortion of a perfectly healthy child over 20 weeks into development is more common than gun homicide. That’s not a few isolated incidences of difficult, heartbreaking choices. That’s a human rights crisis.

America’s continued insistence on perpetuating this crisis is bizarre by both international and domestic standards. Across the developed world—including highly progressive countries such as Germany, Norway, and Sweden—abortions are generally banned with few exceptions somewhere between 12 and 18 weeks. And only nine percent of Americans believe abortion should be available during the entire pregnancy. In 2013, when Congress considered a 20-week ban that did not include exceptions for fetal anomaly, Americans supported the bill 59 to 30 percent. There is a national consensus to bring America’s late-term abortion laws in line with the rest of the developed world. Such a law would not even require messy constitutional questions, since bans on late-term abortion are explicitly permitted in the Supreme Court cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

If Secretary Clinton and others wish to continue to support late-term abortion under any circumstance, that is their right. But such advocates must be prepared to articulate why the rest of the world and the vast majority of Americans are wrong, and why we should tolerate the massive number of elective late-term abortions that occur within our borders. Instead of such an explanation, both Secretary Clinton and the media continue to misrepresent the state of late-term abortion to the American people, either because they are ignorant of the facts, or because they are afraid of how the American people would respond to them. And that is unacceptable.


John S. Acton ’17 is a government concentrator living in Eliot House.

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