What is a late term abortion and why do women have them?

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg shut down Fox News’ Chris Wallace at the network’s town hall Sunday when the candidate defended the small percentage of women who undergo so-called “late-term abortions.”

“We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen the name, women who have purchased the crib, families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or the life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice,” he said.

Abortion debates are heating up nationwide as more and more states adopt laws and restrictions to make the procedures more difficult, if not criminalized. Alabama is the most recent and extreme example: The state now has a law that can send doctors to prison for performing abortions.

But Buttigieg and physicians say the focus on “late-term abortions” is misleading. What the phrase means is open to interpretation, since it’s not in doctors’ vocabulary and is instead used by politicians to “catastrophize” abortions that happen in later pregnancy, according to Dr. Sarah Prager, an OB-GYN and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Calling abortions “late-term” is an effective strategy for politicians and anti-abortion activists because “it shifts the focus of abortion to make it seem like it’s happening at later stages, but that’s just not true,” she said. “It shifts the frame in a way that’s very unhelpful and extremely unrealistic.”

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, just over 1% of all abortions in the U.S. are performed after 21 weeks gestation, which is six weeks before the end of the second trimester. “Abortion later in the second trimester is very rare, and abortion in the third trimester is rarer still, accounting for less than one percent of abortions,” the organization said on its website.

In Prager’s words, the number of third trimester abortions is “virtually none. It’s a vanishingly small number.”

ACOG says women may need later-stage abortions if the fetus is likely to die before or right after birth due to anomalies like anencephaly — when a big portion of the brain, skull and scalp are missing.

It may also be necessary when a woman’s life is threatened: Issues like placental abruption, or when the placenta separates too soon from the uterus, can be fatal, due to complications including blood loss, stroke, and septic shock.

As many women are emphasizing, they aren’t having abortions later in pregnancy because they’ve suddenly changed their minds about motherhood.

“Abortion isn’t something that is entered into lightly at any gestational age, and we need to remember not just as physicians, but as a society, that abortion is still medically safer than continuing the pregnancy,” Prager said. “One hundred percent of the time that is true.”

Why women have abortions at any stage, however, isn’t politicians’ — or the public’s — business, advocates and health professionals say. “These are decisions that should be left to women and their families and physicians,” Prager says.

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