In defense of term abortions
In defense of term abortions

In defense of term abortions

Last week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced proposed federal legislation that would criminalize any abortion in America after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In explaining his decision, Graham told reporters he chose that number because “the science tells us … the baby’s nerve endings are pretty well developed and the baby feels pain.”

In reality, there is no scientific consensus on when a fetus feels pain, but Graham’s explanation is telling. It’s yet another example of how, for Republicans, when it comes to abortion, the woman carrying the child is an afterthought. It is actually the crunchy outer shell of a fetus.

The reality is that very few abortions occur in America after 15 weeks. More than 90% of aborted pregnancies occur before 13 weeks, more than 7% occur between 14 and 20 weeks, and only about 1% occur after 20 weeks. But what’s important to understand — and notably absent from Graham’s proposal — is the recognition that most abortions after 15 weeks occur to women and families who want nothing more in the world than to be parents.

The early mid-trimester is when doctors can detect fetal or genetic abnormalities, and that tragic diagnosis is usually what prompts women to have full-term abortions.

Republicans like to paint Democrats as heartless and cruel for supporting late-term abortions, as if women and their doctors aren’t acting out of malice or a desire to cause pain. Indeed, Graham’s stance is part of a larger Republican effort to refocus the abortion debate by attacking Democrats for supporting abortions so close to the end of a pregnancy. (Though, since a typical pregnancy is 40 weeks, the math tells us that 15 weeks is less than half of a full pregnancy, so it’s hard to see how it can be classified as a late-term abortion.)

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The sad reality is that a second or third trimester abortion is, more often than not, an act of love and a response to unimaginable tragedy.

Indeed, I can relate from my own experience as a father. When my oldest child was in utero, the results of a final blood test – known as a quad screen (which is usually done after 15 weeks) – showed a higher than normal likelihood of trisomy 13 or 18, both disorders serious genetics. We were told to do an amniocentesis right away because if there was a serious problem it would only be a week or two to schedule a legal abortion.

…15 weeks is not a useful or humane middle ground. It treats women as bystanders when it comes to their reproductive and mental health.

The news was devastating. We were desperate to have a baby. But a child born with a profound genetic disorder (such as trisomy 13 or 18) is unlikely to live more than a year and would have significant and debilitating physical and mental defects. We could not, in good conscience, bring a child into the world who would most likely spend most of his days in pain and suffering.

At that point in the pregnancy, we had already decided on a name. I chose a stroller and a crib. Friends had even planned a baby shower on a date after I got the news of the results. Termination would have been an agonizing decision – and it usually is for the small number of women who have term abortions.

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In the end, we were lucky. The amniocentesis results showed no serious genetic disorder, and today, my daughter is a creative, smart, and headstrong 6th grader.

But not all parents are so lucky. When I first wrote about this issue nearly five years ago, I spoke to several parents who were forced to terminate a pregnancy due to a serious fetal abnormality.

A woman, Jeni Putalavage-Ross, lived in Texas and learned from her doctor after a fetal scan that her baby would not survive. She and her husband also picked a name. But because of the state-mandated waiting period for an abortion, she could not immediately abort the fetus. “We had to go home and wait and agonize over our decision while I could still feel the baby moving inside me. It was excruciating,” Putalavage-Ross told me.

Today, her situation would be much worse. Under Graham’s proposed legislation, the only exceptions for abortions after 15 weeks are rape, incest and if the mother’s life is in danger. Putalavage-Ross, along with thousands of other women, would be forced to carry the baby to term – against their will. For all the attention Graham and other Republicans pay to the pain felt by fetuses, virtually no attention is paid to the unimaginable physical and emotional pain it would cause a woman.

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Furthermore, there is no thought of the pain experienced by a non-viable fetus or a child affected by a horrible genetic disorder. Their only concern, it seems, is the fetus—not the child it might end up being, and certainly not the woman who must bear it.

Graham argued on Tuesday that a 15-week ban was in line with international standards. And while it is true that many European states limit abortion after 15 weeks, they generally provide broad exceptions and precisely for the unexpected circumstances that may arise from a mid-pregnancy diagnosis. Lawmakers in these countries actually consider the science of childbirth and treat women and babies as human beings, not afterthoughts.

Graham’s proposal is not as toxic as some of the laws now in place in red state America that effectively ban all abortions. His measure is a compromise between what he calls Democratic support for abortion on demand and an outright ban. Although Graham’s proposal would apply almost exclusively to blue states that have few abortion restrictions. It would not replace the much more restrictive bans in red state America.

But 15 weeks is not a useful or humane middle ground. It treats women as bystanders when it comes to their reproductive and mental health. It is not based on science or pregnancy patterns, and above all, it would only add to the tragedy of women and families forced to make the unimaginable decision to terminate a full-term abortion.

For Graham and his fellow Republicans, a woman’s pain is of no concern.

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