No, most late-term abortions are not medically necessary.

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published on July 13, 2016 and has recently been updated.]

When it comes to The
Abortion Debate, both sides often try to focus on facets which
make the opposition look worst. For example, pro-lifers like to talk about
late-term abortions. Pro-choicers like to talk about rape
and medically necessary abortions. Both of these are small fractions of all
abortions. Nevertheless, they all warrant thoughtful responses.
It’s not uncommon for
pro-choicers to sincerely believe that most late-term abortions are done for
medically necessary reasons. After all, 97% of pro-choicers and 69% of
pro-lifers support the legal option of abortion when the woman’s life is in
danger. Likewise 96% and 68% support it when “the woman’s physical health
is endangered” (2011 Gallup).
Claiming late-term
abortion is usually done out of medical necessity may help counter the public’s
overwhelming disapproval of the practice: 64% of all US citizens believe
abortion should be illegal in the 2nd trimester, 80% in the third trimester (2013 Gallup). Note that second trimester is week 13 to 26; definitions of
“late term” vary, most I’ve seen include anywhere from 16 to 20 weeks
and onward.
Yet, to the best of our
knowledge, most late-term abortions are not
done for medical reasons.
This 1988
 surveyed 399 women
seeking abortion at 16+ weeks. The study found women were obtaining late-term
abortions instead of earlier-term abortions (i.e. reasons for delaying)

  • 71% Woman didn’t
    recognize she was pregnant or misjudged gestation
  • 48% Woman found it hard
    to make arrangements for abortion
  • 33% Woman was afraid to
    tell her partner or parents
  • 24% Woman took time to
    decide to have an abortion
  • 8% Woman waited for her
    relationship to change
  • 8% Someone pressured
    woman not to have abortion
  • 6% Something changed
    after woman became pregnant
  • 6% Woman didn’t know
    timing is important
  • 5% Woman didn’t know she
    could get an abortion
  • 2% A fetal problem was
    diagnosed late in pregnancy
  • 11% Other

But, again, these are reasons for delaying abortion, not necessarily reasons for seeking abortion. This is an important distinction because, for example, a woman may have delayed her abortion because it was hard to make arrangements for it, but she may be getting the abortion due to medical necessity. If we want to know why women getting late-term abortions seek abortion in the first place, we need to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, sources discussing this seem to be very hard to come by.
(If you know of any statistics looking only at late-term abortions and women’s reasons for obtaining abortion in that time-frame — NOT reasons for delaying — please email it to or message us on the Facebook page.)

According a 2004 study by Guttmacher, 1,160
women seeking abortion (not just late-term) gave overall reasons for obtaining
an abortion at all stages (may list more than one):

  • 74%
    Having a baby would dramatically change my life
  • 73% Can’t afford a baby now 
  • 48% Don’t want to be a single mother or having relationship problems
  • 38% Have completed my childbearing
  • 32% Not ready for a(nother) child
  • 25% Don’t want people to know I had sex or got pregnant
  • 22% Don’t feel mature enough to raise a(nother) child
  • 14% Husband or partner wants woman to have abortion
  • 13% Possible problems affecting the health of the fetus
  • 12% Physical problem with my health
  • 6% Parents want me to have an abortion
  • 1% Woman was victim of rape 
  • <0.5% Became pregnant as a result of incest
The same Guttmacher
study has statistics for later term abortion (13+ weeks gestation, see Table 6). According
to Guttmacher, 21% of women who had abortion at or past 13 weeks were doing so
for fetal health concerns, and 10% for personal health concerns. This would
mean, at most, 31% of these later term abortions were for health reasons. In other words:

At least 69% of 13+ week abortions are not done for fetal or maternal health concerns.
But in fact the percent of elective abortions will be higher than 69% because in some cases the same woman who had personal health
concerns also cited fetal health concerns, meaning there is overlap between
these two groups. 
Furthermore the 69% figure relies on a heavily generous interpretation: it assumes health concerns
always equal medically necessary abortions. As the study explains:

Women who felt that their fetus’s health had
been compromised cited concerns such as a lack of prenatal care, the
risk of birth defects due to advanced maternal age, a history of miscarriages,
maternal cocaine use and fetal exposure to prescription medications. 
about personal health included chronic and life-threatening conditions such
as depression, advanced maternal age and toxemia. More
commonly, however, women cited feeling too ill during the
to work or take care of their children.

A risk—not even a
certainty–of a birth defect could include something as minor as a cleft lip. A risk of cleft lip gets included in the
“medically necessary” category. In other words, many health problems are not serious
enough to warrant the phrase “medically necessary abortion” yet are
still included here. Pro-choicers often use the phrase “medically necessary” to
conjure up images of things like ectopic pregnancies, but the reality is many
of the abortions categorized as “medically necessary” are not nearly so
impactful, much less fatal. 
Examples of common birth defects
Some people say
“late-term” abortion should only include abortions at or after 16 weeks
gestation. I’ve only been able to find reasons for abortions at or after 13
weeks data, which is slightly different. One could argue that the proportion of
medically necessary abortions after 16 weeks would be higher.
And it probably would
be. However there’s no indication it would be so high as to constitute even a
majority of late-term abortions, much less “nearly all” late-term abortions.
The data available suggests that (a) it’s true women seeking late-term
abortions are more likely to be doing it for medical reasons than women seeking
earlier term abortions and (b) it’s also true that most late-term abortions are
not done for medical reasons.
Remember that at 13+
weeks, at most 31% of women were seeking abortion for medical reasons. Let’s be
generous and guess that at 16+ weeks, it’s now 50% of women seeking abortion for medical reasons. According to Guttmacher, about 1,000,000 abortions are done every year, and 4.8% of
those are done at 16+ weeks gestation ( = 48,000 abortions). Even if a full
half of those are for medical reasons (very unlikely), that means 24,000
late-term abortions done annually for non-medical reasons. So: At least 65
late-term abortions are done every day in the U.S. for
non-medical reasons.
 That is worth our attention, and if as many
people are as opposed to late-term abortions as Gallup reveals, then it’s worth everyone’s

Follow up: More evidence that most late-term abortions are elective

Editor’s note: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Guttmacher finds at least 75% of 13+ week abortions are for non-medical reasons. The 75% figure is for all abortions, not only abortions after 13 weeks. We have corrected the figure for 13+ weeks to the 69% minimum based on the Guttmacher report.

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