Should pro-choice politicians be required to clarify the point at which legal abortion services should be cut off? If they don’t, does that mean they endorse incredibly late-term abortion procedures past the point of viability?
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) certainly thinks so, and is winning a round of praise from right-wing media this week for raising the argument. But framing reproductive policy in this way is ultimately missing the point about who has later abortions, and how restricting abortion operates in practice.
Republican politicians are often asked whether they think abortion bans should have any exceptions for extreme cases, like pregnancies that have resulted from rape or pregnancies that place a woman’s health in danger. (These type of exceptions have been included in national abortion restrictions for decades.) After Paul himself faced this line of questioning in a “testy” interview earlier this week, the GOP presidential candidate encouraged reporters to grill Democratic lawmakers instead, in the name of fairness — and ask whether they would be okay with “killing a seven-pound baby.”
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz replied that she supports “letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved.” Because she did not stipulate a specific point in pregnancy when abortion should be outlawed, some observers drew the conclusion that the Democrat Party supports abortion “up until the moment of birth.”
“Debbie’s position, which I guess is the Democrat Party’s position, that an abortion all the way up until the day of birth would be fine, I think most pro-choice people would be really uncomfortable with that,” Paul said in a subsequent interview with CNN on Wednesday. “I really think she’s got some explaining to do.”
“It’s disturbing to know that the Chairwoman of the DNC supports zero protections for the life of an unborn child, not even in the final days before birth,” Republican National Committee Press Secretary Allison Moore added in a statement. “Do her fellow Democrats share their party chair’s position, which is out-of-step with the majority of American women?”
As Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel notes, this is exactly the type of framing that pro-life groups like the Susan B. Anthony List have been encouraging politicians to use. Abortion opponents are now praising Paul for finding a way to re-focus the political conversation about reproductive rights on Democrats’ extreme views.
An elective abortion procedure just one day before a baby is due to be born certainly does sound extreme. But this procedure doesn’t really exist — and is hardly a logical outcome in a society in which decisions about abortion are left between a patient and a doctor.
Third-trimester abortion procedures, which are performed only by a handful of highly trained doctors, are incredibly rare and typically reserved for women who are terminating a pregnancy because they’ve discovered their unborn child has very serious health issues and won’t survive outside the womb. Some of these fetuses have organs growing outside of their bodies. Some of them have huge holes in their brains. For these grieving parents, having a late abortion procedure is not about “killing a seven-pound baby,” or about denying the humanity of the unborn child they’re carrying. It’s about finding the most compassionate way to determine the end-of-life care for their unborn children in a way that prevents as much suffering as possible.
“There were really two options for my daughter, considering her limitations. There was peace, or there was life — and she couldn’t have both,” a woman named Kate who traveled to Colorado several years ago to have a third-trimester procedure, told ThinkProgress in a recent interview. “I chose peace.”
Abortions at this point in pregnancy require a lengthy procedure; they also cost thousands of dollars and typically aren’t covered by insurance. Even aside from the emotional and moral considerations, and simply from a logistical standpoint, it’s not a decision that women are able to enter into lightly. Kate ended up relying on support from her parents in order to be able to afford the procedure.
The few doctors who are available to perform this service — who were recently profiled in the acclaimed documentary After Tiller — decide on a case-by-case basis whether they will go through with a very late abortion. They consider the circumstances of the patient, any safety concerns regarding the difficult and days-long procedure, and the gestational age of the fetus. These professionals would not consent to perform the type of abortion that Paul is describing; indeed, After Tiller shows one doctor turning down a woman who requested an abortion at 35 weeks due to the fetus’ health defects because it was simply too late.
Republicans’ rhetoric around abortion erases this well-documented reality about later abortion procedures. (Incidentally, learning additional context about why women may need to have an abortion in the second or third trimester shifts public opinion toward opposing 20-week bans.)
Plus, suggesting that Democrats endorse infanticide misconstrues what the party’s official platform — which states that “abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy; there is no place for politicians or government to get in the way” — really means in practice. From a policy perspective, the position that the government shouldn’t impose any restrictions on abortion is actually an endorsement of earlier abortion procedures, not late-term ones.
Here in the United States, hundreds of existing policies create barriers to abortion services at every turn. Thanks to insurance bans that require women to pay for the entire cost of abortion out-of-pocket, mandatory counseling and waiting periods that require women to make multiple trips to a clinic, regulations on abortion clinics that are driving them out of business, and restrictions on doctors that narrow the pool of available providers, it’s no easy feat to end a pregnancy in many parts of the country.
We have clear evidence about the consequences of those policies: American women are delaying abortion longer than they would prefer. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, more than 4,000 women were denied abortions in 2008 because they were past the gestational limit. They wanted to end their pregnancies sooner, but legislative and financial hurdles proved insurmountable. Nearly six in ten participants said they couldn’t get an abortion earlier because of travel and procedure costs.
Women are also struggling to access the easiest and safest method of ending an early pregnancy — pills that can induce an abortion — because Republican lawmakers have been busy restricting it. Sixteen states currently limit access to medication abortion, something that researchers at the Guttmacher Institute warn will “threaten provision of abortion in the earliest stages of pregnancy.”
Due to this policy reality, some reproductive rights proponents have proposed somewhat of an “abortion compromise” to GOP politicians: Make it easier for women to prevent unplanned pregnancies and access early abortion, and then it would be acceptable to place a limit on later procedures. We could model our own policies after European countries like France, where the government pays for the full cost of contraception and first-trimester abortions.
But that approach would signal a radical departure from the way the United States currently approaches women’s health care — requiring politicians to expand access to free health care, make emergency contraception widely available, allow the government to subsidize the cost of abortion, remove the logistical barriers to getting to the nearest clinic, and integrate abortion with the rest of women’s routine reproductive health services. Ironically, anti-abortion politicians are unlikely to agree to those reforms, and have instead doggedly pursued policies that actually undermine the goal of lowering the national abortion rate.
Republicans could also think about the issue this way: We already have an example of a developed country without a single politically-imposed restriction on abortion. That simply describes our neighbor to the North — where there does not appear to be an epidemic of women having elective abortions after the first trimester, since Canada’s abortion rate is lower than the United States‘.