A Response to Saletan on Late-Term Abortions.

Still reeling from the arrest of Philadelphia late-term abortionist Kermit GosnellWilliam Saletan challenged pro-choice writers to answer the following question:

Contraception or abstinence is best, emergency contraception is next best, early abortion is next best, and we should make these options more accessible, not less. But we'll still be left with some women who, for no medical reason, have run out the clock, even to the point of viability. Should their abortion requests be granted anyway?

Before I answer the question, I want to make two points. First, as TAP's Scott Lemieux noted last week, asking about late-term abortions in general really has nothing to do with Dr. Gosnell's crimes, even if it did spur this current round of debate. Second, Saletan precedes his question with several studies (though the research in this area is inadequate) revealing that around 50 percent of women who sought second-trimester abortions did so because they couldn't make up their minds. My hunch, however, is that that number would probably be close to zero if women stopped getting pregnant accidentally. In 2008, about half of the 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States were unintended. Which it to say, women are having trouble deciding because they never made the decision to get pregnant in the first place. It's not a hard decision if you chose to get pregnant. So part of what makes Saletan's question, and the concerns of many pro-lifers on this issue, a bit silly is that the the position that late-term abortions should be legal is in part a policy response to the real-world barriers American women face before, during, and after pregnancy.

I should also mention that Saletan's question is purely hypothetical. There are very few women who simply decide to "run out the clock" and get a last-minute abortion, even though that stereotype is out there, and that's because not all women have access to comprehensive sex-education, contraception, and affordable abortions. In a country with perfect reproductive-health policies, Saletan's thought-experiment would be moot, but I want to answer it anyway because, despite the fact that it has no bearing on the reality of most women's experiences in the United States, pro-choicers get questions about late-term abortions all the time.

Even people who consider themselves pro-choice -- including some in this office -- feel abortions after viability are immoral. In Pennsylvania, for example, abortions were banned after 24 weeks, which means only allowable for the first and second trimesters, although some see the point of viability at 20 weeks or after 5 months. For the purposes of Saletan's question, I think we're referring to late-term abortions as post-viability abortions, which means that women would be required to continue their pregnancy for 3-4 months. 

For me, the answer is yes, late-term abortions should be legal, even if medical complications are out of the picture. If a woman decides to have a late-term abortion, which often means traveling across state lines and spending a lot of money to have it done or submitting to a complicated procedure at a shady clinic like Dr. Gosnell's patients did, then they are obviously making a very serious decision because they feel having an abortion is what they need. Maybe their decision is financial, maybe their marriage has become abusive, and maybe she's a bad, fickle person. But being pro-choice means having the strong belief that women's bodies should not be used in any way against their will. 

This probably sounds trite to a lot of pro-choice activists, but it's not a bad time to rehash the argument. Today, thousands of pro-life protesters are flooding D.C., Saturday was the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and it's been almost two years since Dr. George Tiller was murdered for providing legal, safe, late-term abortions. Dr. Tiller used to wear a pin that said "trust women," and that's a good way to sum up the pro-choice argument for late-term abortions. Women aren't just their wombs, and they have all sorts of reasons to seek late-term abortions. Allowing late-term abortions doesn't make them more frequent, but it sends a strong message that you respect women's ability to choose what is best for them. To think women shouldn't be able to make this decision is to base abortion policy on an outdated, deeply misogynistic understanding of women rather than their real-world needs.

-- Pema Levy

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