The final presidential debate brought the issue to a head.
Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Though it's one of the most contentious issues in American politics, there's a galling lack of public understanding about late-term abortions, and that misunderstanding was on display at the final presidential debate Wednesday.
While discussing the impact that new Supreme Court justices would have on matters like upholding Roe v. Wade, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said she was against regulations that prohibit late-term abortion if those regulations do not take into account the health of both the mother and child. In response, Republican nominee Donald Trump made some sensational—and partly inaccurate—claims.
"If you go with what Hillary is saying in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby," Trump said. "Now, you can say that that's okay, and Hillary can say that that's okay, but it's not okay with me."
As Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an OB/GYN who is trained in late-term abortions, pointed out in a blog post: there's no such thing as a ninth-month "abortion." Very rarely, labor is induced late in the term to deliver a baby with a severe defect that makes it "incompatible with life," but this isn't an abortion—it's an induced delivery, just like is sometimes required for healthy babies.
Sometimes, as late as 32 or 34 weeks (that would be just shy of eight months pregnant), Gunter said these serious birth defects can lead to a procedure called dilation and extraction, which requires " fetal cardiac activity stopped with an injection into the uterus," but this procedure becomes more difficult the further along the pregnancy.
"I've never heard of a dilation and extraction for any other reason than severe birth defects," Gunter wrote.
There are, of course, late-term abortions and procedures. These are generally defined as after 21 weeks, or about five months pregnant, but they are both very rare, and often due to medical reasons. Of the roughly 1 million abortions performed in the US each year, only 1.3 percent occur after 21 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health research institute. The majority, 65.8 percent, take place before eight weeks of pregnancy.
And though the reason for late-term abortions are not as well tracked, there's some evidence to back up the many anecdotal claims that the majority are for medical reasons. A 2014 study on late-term abortions by Yale researchers found that 79.2 percent of the procedures were for birth defects or chromosomal abnormalities, while 20.8 percent were elective. On average, these abortions took place at 22 weeks—just before the six months mark.
"The birth defects that lead to abortion are almost always lethal or very severe. Conditions like holoprosencephaly or anencephaly or multiple anomalies that are deemed not compatible with life," Gunter wrote in another post on this issue.
Though there's a common belief that late-term abortions are often due to health risks for the mother, it's more often due to defects in the fetus. Carrying to term could mean a stillbirth, or a short, painful life for the child, and so sometimes late-term abortions are seen as the more compassionate option.
The philosophical debate is not simple, but it's important to have the facts straight and the language clear, especially when you might be the person appointing supreme court judges for the next four years.