I have little to say on the murder of Dr. Tiller than hasn’t been covered adequately elsewhere (e.g.).  But two persistent points have been getting on my nerves regarding late-term abortion in which Dr. Tiller had specialized.   So let’s have some data.

1)  The focus on late-term abortion, especially the straw-fetus of frivolous late-term abortion.  The typical discussion runs as follows:  a very serious person argues that while he’s personally comfortable with first trimester abortion, the thought of a woman wandering in and deciding that she doesn’t want her baby in week 35 of a pregnancy is horrifying.  (e.g., makes him want to puke.)  And let’s accept for the sake of argument that it is horrifying.*  What can the pro-choice advocate say?

First, that late-term abortions are really, really rare.  Here’s a chart from the Guttmacher Institute.


The full document is here.  The chart shows percentage of abortions by week of gestation.   Note that the vast majority are in the first trimester, and over half are before 9 weeks.  (The answer to “Abortion stops a beating heart” should be “Well, about that…”; the heart isn’t beating before five weeks.)

But let’s look at the late-term abortions.    Only 1.1% are after more than 21 weeks.  21 weeks is about two weeks shy of the lower-end of viability.  21 weeks is still in the second trimester.    We can safely assume that the number of abortions in the third trimester is even smaller, especially because abortion after 24 weeks is generally not permitted by law except in cases of danger to the health of the mother and the fetus.

Let’s have some more context.  One commonly-cited reason for abortion past the first trimester is the presence of fetal abnormalities, including Down syndrome and other fetal abnormalities.  These are usually detected on an ultrasound and confirmed via amniocentesis.  Amniocentesis is somewhat risky, so it’s usually performed only if there’s a reason to suspect an abnormality.  And the usual time to find an abnormality would be during the second trimester ultrasound, usually around 18-20 weeks, sometimes a bit earlier.   It seems reasonable to conclude that many of the abortions performed post 21-weeks are due to the discovery of some sort of anomaly.  Moreover, medicine can’t catch these abnormalities significantly sooner than they are discovered.

So, we’re well under 1%, and we haven’t even made it to the types of cases that would need the attention of someone like Tiller, who performed abortions after 24 weeks when there was a sufficient medical reason.  (He turned women away sometimes.) What do those look like?  There have been many heartbreaking stories circulated around the Internet following Tiller’s murder.   You can read some of them here.   This one is typical, if “typical” can be used to describe such a sad situation.  Note a common theme: a pregnancy that is going well, until suddenly it isn’t, and then a couple has to make an absolutely heartrending decision.   Note that simply letting nature take its course can be equally heartbreaking (can you imagine knowing your child would not survive long past birth, and having to hear the well-wishes of well-intentioned acquaintances? )

At 1.2 million abortions per year, 1.1% is about 13,200 abortions.  I mention this because late-term abortion looms much larger as a reason to oppose abortion than it should given its rarity.  It’s also important to note that past 24 weeks, the laws do not permit abortion that isn’t tied to reasons of life and health (fetal or maternal).   People primarily worried about late-term abortion need to understand what it is that they’re worried about, understand that what they’re worried about is already heavily regulated, and then need to make the case from there, based on the cases that actually occur.   It allows us to formulate the problem in terms of specific questions.  This doesn’t make the answers easy, or rid us of potential ethical questions.  But it at least ensures we’re not debating the abortion-equivalent of the ticking-time bomb.  To do otherwise is simply not based in reality.

2) RoeRoe Roe Roe Roe Roe.  If you didn’t read the case, and just went by Internet discussion, you’d come away with the impression that Roe not only made it impossible to regulate late-term abortion, but that it was the only case that had ever been decided concerning abortion.  The actual finding of Roe?  The state has no compelling interest in regulating abortion in the first trimester, and needs to provide for a life-of-the-mother exemption in the later term.  The actual case out of which most of the current regulation is based? Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which introduced the undue burden test, which allows for certain amount of state intervention even in the first trimester.

Now, if one is against abortion full-stop, one probably won’t be moved by the health of the mother or the age of the fetus or the amount of regulations in place.   And one is free to make that case.  (It’s interesting, though, that Tiller drew the ire he did because of the age of the fetuses.)

But most Americans seem to be okay with abortion in the first trimester, a little squeamish about abortion in the second trimester, and really not sure about abortion in the third trimester.   Given that, it’s incredibly important to know what the laws are, and what’s actually at stake.

Update: Commenter North provides this helpful fact sheet from FOXNews, which tells us that there are approximately 100 abortions per year performed after 24 weeks gestation, around 0.01% (rounded up.)  Late-term abortions are very, very, very rare.

*There are good arguments that what one finds personally horrifying really shouldn’t matter to the legality of abortion; I just wanted to set aside that question entirely.