Who Suffers When States Decide To Cut Off Legal Abortion At 20 Weeks? The Young And Poor

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The fight over reproductive rights is often centered on later abortion procedures. The anti-choice community is attempting to chip away at the constitutional right to an abortion by banning it after 20 weeks, largely because that arbitrary cut-off appears moderate. Just last month, Senate Republicans introduced a national version of a 20-week abortion ban, a policy that has already been enacted in nine states.

In order to drum up support for this type of legislation, abortion opponents typically focus on the fetus, which they claim can feel pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Despite the fact that there’s no scientific evidence of fetal pain at that point, this strategy has been very successful. Eight of the nine states with 20-week bans on the books cite fetal pain as the primary reason that this restriction is necessary.

The reproductive rights community, on the other hand, emphasizes the individual women who may need a later abortion, making the point that they shouldn’t be forced to suffer under a stringent state law. But since later abortions are so rare — making up about 1.5 percent of all abortions performed nationwide — it can be difficult to get a clear picture of this population. Who are the real people who will impacted by the decision to cut off abortion access after 20 weeks?

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco are piecing together the answer to that question. After drilling down the data from the Turnaway Study — a larger research project focusing on the women who seek abortions — they honed in on the individuals who sought an elective abortion after 20 weeks, comparing them to the people who sought a first-trimester abortion at the same clinics. They wanted to figure out what made those two groups different, and why the first group of women was waiting until after 20 weeks.

The main difference was that the women who need later abortion care are disproportionately likely to be young and poor. The researchers found that those individuals fell into at least one of the following five categories: “They were raising children on their own, had substance use or mental health problems, were experiencing conflict with their partner or domestic violence, had had trouble deciding whether to have an abortion and then had problems accessing services, or were young and had never had children.” Thirty eight percent of the women surveyed fell into two of those groups.

“Bans on abortion after 20 weeks will disproportionately affect young women and women with limited financial resources,” the researchers concluded.

This is consistent with the other findings from the Turnaway Study. Researchers who worked on that study also found that the women who run out of time to get an abortion — essentially, the women who wait so long to seek care that they surpass the legal limit — are economically disadvantaged. It takes them too long to save up the money they need for their abortion, and it’s too hard for them to make the costly trip to the closest clinic.

Abortion opponents typically point to European nations, which tend to cut off legal abortion around 12 weeks, to prove that the United States’ laws are much too lax. From this point of view, a 20-week ban seems like a very small compromise — indeed, that’s the point that several conservative commentators made when Texas recently considered this type of restriction. But that doesn’t take into account all of the barriers that this country has enacted to prevent women, and particularly very poor women, from easily exercising their reproductive rights. State-level restrictions on abortion, like barring low-income women from using their insurance coverage to pay for it, ensure that there are still some women in this country who desperately need later abortion care.