As a longtime women’s health educator and advocate, I was apoplectic when I read a recent commentary in my local newspaper by a “chaplain serving an elderly population” who is also “treasurer of the Republican Party” in my state and a “county party chair.”
The op.ed. proffered so many spurious and false assertions, often stated by others with far-right political views, that my hair was nearly on fire. Given where we are in this country regarding abortion, I felt compelled to address one of the egregiously uninformed views of the author, which I did in a Letter to the Editor. It seems to me now important to share what I wrote for a wider audience, in the hope of reaching others inclined to make uninformed claims about a vital issue that affects so many lives and the culture in which we live.
This is the claim that blew me away. It relates to a bill in my state proposing a law like ones in some other states protecting a woman’s right to abortion moving forward. “The bill goes far beyond Roe [v. Wade], guaranteeing unrestricted abortion through all nine months of pregnancy…” the author wrote. It’s a misleading claim that calls for revisiting the facts regarding the inaccurate use of the term “late term abortion.”
The first thing to note here is that abortion after fetal viability is a rare occurrence and usually involves a medical crisis. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abortions after 21 weeks make up less than 1.3% of all abortions in the United States. Abortions that occur beyond 24 weeks make up less than 1% of all procedures. Exceptionally rare cases that happen after 24 weeks are often because a fetus has a condition that cannot be treated and and that renders the fetus unable to survive, regardless of gestational age or trimester.
Secondly, the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law, was vital to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The 14th amendment also protects the right to privacy and the Court held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within that statute. By a 7–2 majority the Court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Importantly, the Court also determined the point of fetal viability as the “capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb,” hence the 24- week marker. The Court’s decision gave women a right to abortion during the entirety of the pregnancy, however, while defining different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters.
It’s important to know that, as the Guttmacher Institute points out, if a physician determines that the child is “non-viable” and/or the abortion is necessary for the physical or mental health of the mother, a woman can have an abortion from the moment of conception until the child’s birth. State laws restricting third trimester abortions are unconstitutional under the precedent of Doe v. Bolton, a case in which the Supreme Court overturned a Georgia law. (Numerous states have laws that ban or restrict abortions in the third trimester. Because these statutes remain in place or haven’t been contested in federal court, they may imply that they are allowed by federal law. But because federal law trumps state law, no restrictions can be enacted that do not also allow the doctor to determine if abortion is necessary for the health of the mother.)
Here’s another fact: Overturning Roe and Doe won’t end all third-trimester abortions. When the Supreme Court throws the abortion issue back to individual states, third-trimester abortions will still be protected in states that reiterate prior standards for “viability” or “health.”
But here’s the most important thing for everyone to know. No woman decides to have an abortion after 24 weeks recklessly or without a great deal of anguish. Perhaps she does it because of a serious illness she has, like decompensating heart disease. Maybe her baby has a delayed diagnosis of anencephaly, which means the fetus forms without a complete brain or skull. There are a multitude of medical crises that can precipitate a third trimester abortion. But the decision is never taken lightly. In most cases, there is deep grieving and a profound sense of loss, brought about because of medical necessity and the wish that a much loved and wanted baby not suffer.
That’s why people like the man who wrote the troubling commentary – claiming that he “doesn’t oppose or seek to diminish women’s rights” and that he “supports [women’s] right to their own body and right to choose” -- people who misunderstand not just the right to abortion but the reasons women choose it, at any stage of pregnancy, must move beyond facile arguments, misstatements of fact, and feeble justifications. They must somehow begin to recognize that for many women, the choices they face are devastating and immensely complicated.
Most urgently, they must find it in themselves to be compassionate and to resist judging those whose experiences and viewpoints differ from theirs.
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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com