When Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill to ban late-term abortions in the nation’s capitol, it didn’t get much attention. It was last January, and reproductive health advocates were heading into all-consuming national battles over Komen and contraceptives. Rep. Franks’s bill hardly registered.
All of a sudden, Washington became a “battleground.”
It is not, however, the first place to fight such a battle: Five states passed “fetal pain” abortion laws in 2011, similar to the proposed D.C. law. The restrictions outlaw abortion after 20 weeks on the basis that the fetus could feel pain (the scientific research there is disputed). The antiabortion movement has increasingly rallied behind these restrictions; when Rep. Franks introduced such a ban for the District of Columbia in January, the National Right to Life Committee announced that it would be its top priority in 2012.
What would it mean to ban late-term abortions in the District? Practically, it would impact relatively few women: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics suggest that no doctor in the District performed an abortion after 20 weeks in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available. Researchers caution, however, that the CDC data rely on local health reporting, which does not always include every area provider.
The Washington area does have one definite late-term abortion provider, LeRoy Carhart, an outspoken reproductive rights advocate. But his clinic in Maryland would not be affected by the proposed D.C. restrictions.
More generally, late-term abortions tend to be a small minority of such procedures: They accounted for 1.3 percent of the 623,000 abortions performed in 2007. Many of the battles over abortion, however, get fought over this minority of procedures — probably because they are the abortions that Americans feel most conflicted about.
Thirty-nine states prohibit elective abortion late in a pregnancy. The District, however, has no such restriction. Many of these laws are understood to be compliant with Roe v. Wade, which gave states the power to prohibit third-trimester abortion as long as there was an exception for “the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
A small body of research exists that looks at why women obtain late-term abortions: One 1988 study, which studied women seeking to terminate their pregnancy after 16 weeks, found that the vast majority either didn’t recognize their pregnancy early on or had difficulty making financial or logistical arrangements for the procedure. A more recent study from the Guttmacher Institute focused on women seeking abortions after 13 weeks, and found them to have lower levels of education, more likely to be adolescents or have experienced three or more disruptive events in the past year.
The concern, on the part of reproductive health advocates, has to do with women who could experience significant harm if a late-term abortion were not available.
The Franks legislation does include a proviso for women whose life is threatened, but is silent about any exception for a woman who could face adverse health effects. “While most women can look forward to a safe pregnancy, pregnancies can go terribly wrong,” said Willie Parker, an obstetrician who submitted testimony for this week’s hearing. He recalled caring for a Senate staff member who discovered a deadly fetal anomaly 23 weeks into her pregnancy.
“She and her husband were distraught — this was their first child — but resolute that abortion was the right decision for them,” Parker said.
Abortion rights advocates worry that, under the Franks law, such an option would not be available to couples with similar concerns.