As prevalent as the expression is, it’s a political construct that’s meaningless in a medical sense, doctors and experts on reproductive rights have said for years ― and words matter when they’re being used to legislate around people’s bodies.
“The phrase ‘late-term abortion’ is a political buzzword, not medical terminology,” Dr. Katie McHugh, an OB-GYN in Indiana and board chair with Physicians for Reproductive Health, told HuffPost.
“Abortion bans based on gestational age are especially offensive because they are based only in ideology, not in medical science or common sense,” she said.
Doctors only use the phrase “late-term” to refer to a pregnancy ― not an abortion ― 41 weeks after the last menstrual period, and abortion “does not occur at that gestational age,” McHugh explained. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists outlines it the same in its guide to abortion language, saying there’s “no clinical or medical significance” to the term when applied to abortions.
A so-called “late-term abortion,” meanwhile, seems to be whatever the Republican writing the bill wants it to be. Tuesday’s bill from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), titled the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act,” says that cutoff is at 15 weeks. But another bill that Graham and other Republicans have repeatedly tried to pass in recent years held up 20 weeks as the “late-term” cutoff. The prominent anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, meanwhile, claims the phrase is appropriate for abortions performed starting at 13 weeks of pregnancy.
It’s likely that the people behind these bans ― many of whom would like to see abortion banned at every stage of pregnancy ― aren’t actually concerned with the specifics here, but rather with the powerful imagery that a phrase like “late-term abortion” invokes.
“Much of the language that is colloquially used to describe abortion or discuss health policies that impact abortion has a basis in anti-choice rhetoric and is inherently biased and inaccurate — and at the very least, is not medically appropriate,” ACOG explains in its guide.
“Such misleading, harmful language has no basis in medicine and ignores the realities faced by those seeking abortion care,” Katherine Gillespie, acting director of federal policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told HuffPost.
Former President Donald Trump repeatedly brought up “late-term abortions” during his campaign rallies, then proceeded to describe doctors “ripping babies straight from the mother’s womb, right up until the very moment of birth” ― an illustration that has no basis in reality.
While there are any number of reasons someone might wait to seek out an abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy ― because laws in their state made the procedure complicated and time-consuming to access, say, or because a fetal anomaly came to light ― the anti-abortion movement’s language around those circumstances is nearly always stigmatizing and full of violent descriptions of a generally safe procedure.
“Calling a 15 or 20 week abortion ‘late term’ is another way for anti-abortion people to scare the uninformed and shame pregnant people for the decisions we make about our own bodies — so that they can get away with legislating those decisions for us,” Holly Nunn, the editorial director at Planned Parenthood, tweeted Monday. “It’s about control over us.”
Lawmakers’ descriptions of “late-term abortions” nearly always involve graphic and disturbing accounts of fetal pain, and Tuesday’s bill is no exception. Though the proposed legislation rests on the argument that there’s strong evidence from “recent medical research and analysis” that a fetus has the capacity for pain after 15 weeks of pregnancy, ACOG is unwavering in its position.
“The science conclusively establishes that a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24-25 weeks,” the group says. “Every major medical organization that has examined this issue and peer-reviewed studies on the matter have consistently reached the conclusion that abortion before this point does not result in the perception of pain in a fetus.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to a claim that a fetus can experience pain “before 15 weeks of pregnancy.” It should have read “after 15 weeks of pregnancy.”
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