There is no such thing as an “abortion survivor”

Backed by politics, not science.
Backed by politics, not science.
Image: AP Photo/Doug Dreyer
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The US Senate is set to vote on a bill to protect “abortion survivors” today (Feb. 25.)

The bill, introduced by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, would “prohibit a health care practitioner from failing to exercise the proper degree of care in the case of a child who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.”

In other words, the bill peddles the false narrative that abortions happening later in pregnancies could result in live babies left to die by physicians who fail to provide care that would otherwise keep them alive and healthy. This is not a practice that exists, yet the bill seeks to criminalize it.

The measure is misleading in other ways. An abortion is performed with the intention of ending a pregnancy, so there are no survivors. What the bill’s sponsors seem to be targeting are the rare situations in which a woman decides to have abortion at the later stages in her pregnancy because it can’t proceed healthily for her, the fetus, or both.

Why do the lawmakers talk of survivors?

The Sasse bill would only apply to a sliver of abortions that happen late in pregnancy—which are already a small fraction of all abortions.

The usual procedure for these type of abortions is “dilation and evacuation”—similar to an aspiration abortion, except the birth canal needs to be dilated since the fetus is larger. The fetus dies before it leaves the birth canal. But in some cases, in very advanced stages of pregnancy, women have so-called induction abortion, which is similar to labor. It is done rarely because it’s a riskier procedure, and it can lead to the fetus leaving the body alive, albeit in a terminal state.

The practice at this point is to give the baby hospice care, though Sasse’s bill would require doctors to medically intervene, potentially prolonging the suffering of both mother and child, and disregarding the painful decision that the woman had to make beforehand.

How common are later-term abortions?

The percentage of women seeking abortions at this stage in their pregnancy is very small—likely well below 1%—and in 43 states the procedure is legal only in case of grave health concern for the mother, rape, or incest. Even where elective later-term abortions are allowed, they are not easily available. Only a handful of doctors in America perform the procedure, which women overwhelmingly seek because of some serious fetal issue was overlooked in previous testing, or due to severe psychiatric issues on the mother’s part.

In the few states that allow abortions after viability, a woman might decide to end her pregnancy after the doctor has told her that her fetus has very serious conditions that are either incompatible with life or would condemn it to a painful, and often short, life. It is a typically a heartbreaking, traumatic experience, and often a tragic choice for wanted pregnancies that are no longer viable.

Rather than having a stillbirth, going through with a hopeless pregnancy, or delivering a babies with terrible abnormalities, women have the choice to have an abortion. Were it to pass, Sasse’s bill would deny women the choice of sparing themselves and their babies from extra trauma and pain, because it would either force doctors to provide care that would prolong the suffering, or potentially even dissuade them for performing the procedure for fear of prosecution.

Correction: Ben Sasse is a senator from Nebraska, not Nevada.