What is a 'late-term abortion'? Experts explain

Abortions that happen later in pregnancy are not common, according to experts. (Getty Images)
Abortions that happen later in pregnancy are not common, according to experts. (Getty Images) (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

Sen. Lindsey Graham has proposed a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks. The bill, called the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children From Late-Term Abortions Act, would include exceptions for abortions that are needed to save the life of the mother or when pregnancy happens as a result of incest or rape. Currently, regulations around abortions are decided at the state level.

The term "late-term abortion" is controversial and is often used in anti-abortion circles. But it's not actually a medical term, according to experts. It's also typically used to describe abortions that happen later in a pregnancy — past the 15 weeks in Graham's proposal, as plenty of people have pointed out on social media.

Author and lawyer Jill Filipovic noted on Twitter that "a normal pregnancy is 40 weeks. 15 weeks is barely into the 2nd trimester." She added, "Not only do these men have no idea how women's bodies work, they also can't do basic math."

Connecticut state Sen. Matt Lesser also commented on Twitter, "That's in no way a 'late term abortion.'"

But what is a "late-term abortion" and why do people get one? Here's what you need to know.

What is typically considered a 'late-term abortion'?

Again, "late-term abortion" is not a medical term. "It is a made-up term," Dr. Jen Gunter, an ob-gyn and author of The Vagina Bible, tells Yahoo Life.

Dr. Monica Dragoman, system director in the complex family planning division in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, agrees. "The terminology is primarily a political construct to sensationalize abortions that occur as pregnancy advances," she tells Yahoo Life.

It's difficult to apply any specific timeline to a "late-term abortion," but, in general math terms, a pregnancy would need to be past the halfway point — over 20 weeks — in order to qualify.

What is the intended effect of using the phrase 'late-term abortion'?

It's "inflammatory language," Erika Christensen, co-director of Patient Forward, an organization that works to secure access to abortion throughout pregnancy, tells Yahoo Life, with the intention to "fearmonger and erase the people who seek this care and our circumstances." Christensen notes that the use of this phrase "has the effect of conflating abortions that take place after some point in pregnancy with live births."

Using language like "late-term abortions" also "attempts to vilify patients in desperate need of essential medical services and the physicians and other clinicians involved in providing this care," Dragoman says. It's confusing for people in general, Gunter says, noting that the term suggests that "people who are 41 weeks are routinely having abortions," which isn't the case.

What do people misunderstand about abortions later on in pregnancy?

Again, abortions that happen later in pregnancy are not common and happen "less frequently than early abortion in the first trimester," Dragoman says. They're also "more stigmatized."

"Laws that restrict gestational age for abortion fail to account for the myriad unique and deeply personal circumstances pregnant people, frequently with the support of their families and physicians, must navigate in the face of an unwanted pregnancy, fetal medical conditions or when continuing pregnancy poses a threat to physical or mental health," she says.

Dragoman stresses that "decisions about abortion at any time during pregnancy are anything but casual" and that patients who seek them "are thoughtful and intentional and frequently hold a number of emotions in conflict at the time of their abortion, while also being certain about what is right for themselves and their future — which may include their current or potential future families."

Delayed access to care can also lead to someone receiving an abortion later in pregnancy, Christensen says. "Examples include laws that push care out of reach, logistical obstacles like travel or child care, or financial barriers like raising money for the procedure," she says.

Who typically gets later abortions and how common are they in reality?

These abortions are not common, Gunter says. "Less than 1% of abortions happen at or after 21 to 22 weeks," she says.

As for who gets these later abortions, experts say it depends. "Abortion bans have a disproportionate impact on groups that are overrepresented among later abortion seekers and abortion seekers more broadly, particularly women of color and especially Black women, women who are young, have limited financial resources, who have to travel farther to reach care and who have discovered their pregnancy later," Christensen says. "These are characteristics of populations already overburdened by institutional and systemic inequity."

Some of these abortions are also in pregnant people who discovered their baby has a fetal anomaly, Gunter says, meaning the fetus developed an unexpected condition. But abortions after 24 weeks are "very rare" and "only legal in some states," Gunter points out. "As they are very expensive, the idea that people are lining up for abortions 'just because' is absurd and insulting," she says.

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.