William Saletan’s highly annoying article asks the question, “Is it OK to abort a viable fetus? An answer to pro-choicers on Kermit Gosnell.” Like “pro-choicers” were lining up to defend Kermit Gosnell? Not that I’ve seen.
Then he says,
Gosnell stands charged with abortions beyond the 24-week gestational limit prescribed by Pennsylvania law. I asked the feminist writers whether, in the name of women’s autonomy, those charges should be dropped.
Gosnell is charged with a lot of things, including infanticide, and among those charges is the accusation that he lied to patients about how far along they were and put their lives at risk through careless and unethical medical practices. I don’t see “women’s autonomy” there; I see exploitation. The Gosnell case is not relevant to the question of gestational limits, and it’s dishonest of Saletan to drag it in and use it for a “hook” for his challenge to reproductive rights.
However, as annoying and intellectually dishonest as Saletan’s abortion articles tend to be, he has a point that many abortions rights activists do seem loathe to answer the simple question — is it OK to abort a viable fetus?
I have believed, since Roe v. Wade was decided, that NARAL and other reproduction rights advocacy groups made a huge mistake by not advocating a clear gestational limit on elective abortions per the Roe guidelines — 24 weeks’ gestation, or the medically recognized threshold of viability. Doing that would have pre-emptively disarmed most of the anti-choice propaganda cranked out over the years. And, in fact, today post-viability elective abortions (with exceptions for life and health of the mother) are prohibited in nearly every state, but I don’t think most people realize that.
I’ve been digging through all kinds of data on abortion for years, and it’s my understanding that there is a gestational limit to elective abortion somewhere in the laws of even the most liberal nations, such as The Netherlands (24 weeks’ gestation, as I remember). In some European countries (Denmark, for example, unless it’s been changed recently), it’s as early as 12 weeks’ gestation. After that point, a woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy has to jump through a number of legal and medical hoops to do so. To my mind 12 weeks is a tad early; but my point is that among the industrialized democracies some kind of gestational limit is the norm, and women understand that if they’re going to abort, they need to get it done before that time. End of story.
I understand there are valid reasons why women postpone abortion. They may not have the money to pay for one; they may have to travel a long distance and arrange for an overnight stay somewhere because of some mandatory “waiting period” between the time an abortion is requested and the time it is performed. They may dread walking through a gauntlet of screeching anti-rights goons. They may be required to get permission from legal guardians or a spouse, and cannot.
It’s also the case that a great many women with no health insurance are effectively cut off from anything approximating pre-natal care, and when they do realize they are pregnant they have no idea how far along they are, and they have no way to find out. Another argument for health care reform.
It’s also the case that people may disagree about what’s “elective” and what isn’t. For example, I understand that rape victims and very young teens often are in denial about being pregnant until they are so far along they can’t hide it any more, and IMO allowances should be made for that. And it would be good to clarify that when a fetus is so physically compromised that it will not survive outside the womb even if born full-term, it’s merciful to allow the woman to abort.
But I am not satisfied with this response to Saletan from Pema Levy:
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.
Absolutely, women should exercise free will, but is there a non-medical reason for a third-trimester abortion that wasn’t also present during the first and second trimesters? If so, then we probably are talking about a short-term crisis, not a chronic living condition, and perhaps other kinds of assistance are warranted.
And if a woman is so ambivalent she can’t decide whether to go through with the pregnancy or not, then it has to be made clear that there comes a time that nature will make your decision for you. Frankly, by the time you get to 24 weeks’ gestation, it’s way too late to “get out of” the pregnancy. By then most of the hormonal and physical challenges of pregnancy have arrived.
It’s also the case that a later-term abortion is more dangerous than earlier ones for a woman. That’s another reason women should understand that abortions can’t be postponed until whenever.
We are, of course, talking about a very small percentage of the abortions in the U.S. According to Alan Guttmacher, only 1.5 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks, which do not all qualify as post-viability abortions, Saletan’s fudging of this issue to the contrary. And those are abortions performed for all reasons, including saving the mothers’ lives or removal of a fetus that has already died from natural causes.
Since they are illegal in nearly every state, I question whether any post-viability elective abortions are being performed in the U.S., except in an unlawful operation such as Kermit Gosnell’s. To my mind, those of us who support reproductive rights aren’t giving anything away by advocating a 24-week limit. This is merely clarifying reality.
For the record, according to the Journal of Perinatology,
The gestational age and birth weight below which infants are too immature to survive, and thus provision of intensive care is unreasonable, appears to be at <23 weeks and <500 g, respectively.
A handful, pretty much literally, of premature babies claimed to have been at less than 23 weeks gestation have survived, but there is skepticism in the medical community that the gestational age was accurate. So, at the moment, the viability “wall” remains after 23 weeks gestation as far as medical science is concerned.
People can quibble over where the gestational line should be drawn. If all of the barriers and roadblocks to getting early-term abortions disappeared tomorrow, and if all American women had access to medical care, and if it is understood that doctors will be allowed some discretion about what is considered “elective,” my preference would be to set the elective limit at some point between 15 and 20 weeks, frankly, although I won’t argue with 24 weeks.
But, to me, once the fetus can survive outside the womb, then the actual birth is something of a technicality, and the woman’s “free will” can no longer be absolute. And however onerous carrying the pregnancy to term might be, surely it was just as onerous before 24 weeks’ gestation.
So, to the simple question, “Is it OK to abort a viable fetus?” I do wish more reproduction rights advocates could learn to just say no, and be clear about it, and stop fudging. There may be conditions attached to that “no,” but it’s still no.
Related: Proof that Fetus People are lying when they claim they care about the well-being of women.