What Is Late-Term Abortion? Trump Got It Wrong

President Trump on Tuesday evening asked Congress to ban a type of abortion often referred to as “late-term abortion.”

He said he wanted to protect “children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.” He scorned New York’s recently passed Reproductive Health Act, saying that lawmakers had “cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” It was an image he has used before, including in a campaign debate with Hillary Clinton.

There are inaccuracies and gray areas in Mr. Trump’s assertions. Here’s an explanation of the terms and the science.

What is late-term abortion and what does federal law allow?

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, said that abortion should be allowed until the time a fetus could survive outside the womb, a point (known as viability) that medical science generally considers to be at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Court has also specified that abortion should be legal after viability in certain cases — if continuing the pregnancy would seriously threaten the woman’s life or health.

Late-term abortion is a phrase used by abortion opponents to refer to abortions performed after about 21 weeks of pregnancy. It is not the same as the medical definition obstetricians use for “late-term,” which refers to pregnancies that extend past a woman’s due date, meaning about 41 or 42 weeks. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s claim, late-term abortions do not allow “a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”

How common is it?

Very rare. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 1.3 percent of abortions performed in the United States in 2015 occurred in or after the 21st week of pregnancy. Abortions after 24 weeks comprise less than one percent of all abortions. When they occur, it is usually because the fetus has been found to have a fatal condition that could not be detected earlier, such as a severe malformation of the brain, or because the mother’s life or health is at serious risk.

Can fetuses feel pain?

This is a complex issue. Most scientists who have examined the question say fetuses do not develop the neurological wiring that would give them the ability to feel pain until at least 24 weeks — in other words after nearly all abortions occur.

An analysis of research in this area published in the JAMA in 2005 found that pain sensation requires neural connections into the cortex, and the cortex is not functionally developed until the 26th week or later.

In 2010, a panel appointed by Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, published another large review of the research concluding that “most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception” so “the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks.

What do state laws say about late-term abortion?

State laws vary. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, 43 states ban some abortions after a certain point in pregnancy.

What does the new New York law allow?

New York’s Reproductive Health Act was passed to make sure the state would continue to ensure the right to an abortion if the Supreme Court were to overturn all or part of Roe v. Wade. Some lawmakers in New York’s Democratic-controlled legislature said they were concerned that President Trump’s appointments of two conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, might put federal abortion protections at risk.

The new state law says a health provider may perform an abortion in the state before 24 weeks, if the fetus is not considered viable, or if the procedure is considered necessary to protect the woman’s life or health. Those are all similar to stipulations made by the Supreme Court.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, sharply disputed Mr. Trump’s characterization of the law. “Contrary to what its detractors claim, the Reproductive Health Act does not allow abortions minutes before birth, nor does it allow third-trimester abortions ‘for any reason,’” Mr. Cuomo wrote.

Pam Belluck is a health and science writer. She was one of seven Times staffers awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for coverage of the Ebola epidemic. She is the author of “Island Practice,” about a colorful and contrarian doctor on Nantucket. @PamBelluck

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