The conversation about abortion is rife with junk science and misnomers used by anti-choice activists to block women from exercising their legal right to get an abortion. But one of the most misleading terms of all is used by people on both sides of the debate: “late-term abortion” or “partial birth abortion.” The fact is that late-term abortions is a dangerous misnomer that muddles any chance of having a real, science-based conversation about abortion.
Roe v. Wade says that abortions are legal up until the point of viability, which is usually thought to be around 24 weeks, though there are studies that show a premature fetus at 22 weeks can survive. This is why 20-week abortion bans, like the one the Senate blocked this week, or the proposed 15-week ban in Mississippi, are so dangerous — it’s a really restrictive interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling and ignores the most basic medical science. According to the Guttmacher Institute, two thirds of abortions are done within the first eight weeks, and 89 percent in the first 12 weeks. Only 1.3 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks, and those are most often to protect the health of the mother or because the fetus won’t survive after birth at all.
Hal Lawrence, M.D., CEO of the American College Of Gynecologists told Cosmopolitan, “Though many media reports and other literature use the phrase ‘late-term abortion,’ it is not accurate and should not be used. A full-term pregnancy is defined as a pregnancy with a gestational age between 39 weeks and 40 weeks, 6 days. ‘Late term’ refers to a pregnancy with a gestational age of 41 weeks to 41 weeks, 6 days. Abortions are not performed at ‘late term.’”
When we ask people to defend their stance on these kinds of abortions, we ignore the fact that this is a pregnancy that a woman likely planned on carrying to term, and her doctors are recommending termination for medical reasons. It’s traumatic. Dr. Daniel Grossman from the University of California San Francisco, told NBC that an abortion in the third trimester is likely the result of a late diagnosis of a severe fetal abnormality that would mean it wouldn’t survive after birth.
The bottom line: Basically no one is having abortions after 20 weeks because they simply changed their mind about having a baby. It’s not a casual decision — but it is one that should be medically available to women who need it.
“Sometimes the patient may develop complications of the pregnancy and the treatment is delivery and when that is at 20 or 21 weeks, that means terminating the pregnancy,” Grossman added. Because Roe v. Wade prohibits banning abortion if the health of the woman is at risk, this is not just medically necessary, but should always be legal.
When politicians and people use the misnomer, they’re adopting language created by anti-abortion activists who would like people to make an emotional leap and picture a fully-formed, healthy “life” being terminated. But that’s ignoring all of the medical science and data we have about when, how, and why women choose to terminate their pregnancies. It’s not just conservative activists or Trump, who described “ripping a baby out” during the 2016 presidential debates, that misuse these terms.
This week, David Brooks, a prominent New York Times columnist, wrote that Democrats should maybe walk back their stance on “late-term abortions,” in the name of drawing more people into the fold. Other high-profile Democrats, like Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), have also suggested that we start to accept candidates who oppose abortion, especially in the third trimester, because we’ve allowed the evocative rhetoric about “partial” or “late-term” abortions to take over.
Instead of narrowing the platform on abortion and giving into the anti-choice movement, it would be much more prudent — and a sign of respect for women’s health care rights — to not allow junk science or rhetoric into the conversation about abortion at all. It’s serious: legislators are making huge decisions about a woman’s right to choose using language popularized by the same people who want to take away that right. A woman’s autonomy over her own body isn’t something that legislators should use a negotiating chip. Especially if no one is paying close enough attention to at least use the correct medical terms for the issue.