Abortion: How late is “Late-Term”?

With some exceptions, abortion in the U.S. is illegal after the point in the pregnancy in which the fetus becomes “viable”.  Viability means when the fetus has a chance to survive if born at this point, and most doctors put this around 24 weeks (where the fetus has about a 50-50 chance of survival). Does that mean that a 28 week abortion is wrong (90-95% chance of survival), but a 20 week abortion is okay (0% chance of survival)? Two recent stories shed light on this distinction.

In Pennsylvania, Dr. Kermit Gosnell is charged with killing seven viable fetuses and one pregnant refugee. The doctor and his staff allegedly performed abortions as late as 8 months into pregnancy. He used scissors to sever the spinal cords of newborns which emerged alive from their mothers, authorities say. Gosnell has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial.

On the other side of the 24 week mark, Arkansas has become the 10th state to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks. Additionally, the State Senate recently passed a bill that would move the limit down to 12 weeks. The bill is expected to be vetoed by the governor, but the veto may be overridden.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court created the viability standard as “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid”. As medical science advances, survivability for premature births becomes more possible. The viability standard is in danger of becoming increasingly arbitrary. Many factors contribute to viability, from the baby’s weight, to the presence of disease and the health of the mother. The viability standard has never been challenged in court, but these new laws are pushing towards just that.

Another question has yet to be raised in this debate. Would a test tube baby, by definition, meet viability standards? If so, what does that mean for the philosophical distinction between late and early term abortions?

Additional Resources

Guttmacher Institute, State Policies in Brief, Abortion Laws: http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_OAL.pdf

The New York Times, Arkansas Law Restricts When Abortion May Occur: www.nytimes.com/2013/03/01/us/arkansas-puts-new-limits-on-abortion.html

NBC News, Abortion Doctor Set to go on Trial in 8 Deaths: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/04/17178509-house-of-horrors-abortion-doctor-set-to-go-on-trial-in-8-deaths

The Huffington Post, Mississippi Abortion Clinic Gets License Warning: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/26/mississippi-abortion-clinic_n_2558320.html

The Guttmacher Institute Facts on Induced Abortion in the U.S.: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html

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