[Daily Blog reposts] Late-term abortions: remembering Dr Tiller

This post was originally published at The Daily Blog on 31 May 2013.

Today, 31/3/13, marks the fourth anniversary of the murder of Dr George Tiller, a man who despite very real threats to his own life and safety provided safe, legal late-term abortions to the women of Kansas.

Late-term abortion is one of the contentious issues even within prochoice discussions.  People just inherently find it “icky” – even more so than abortion in general.  A lot of that probably has to do with the way the abortion debate has been framed for so long in an attempt to make it as palatable as possible – focusing on the very early, non-baby-like stages of pregnancy.

Yet that’s not a misrepresentation.  The vast majority of abortions do occur early in pregnancy.

New Zealand has a soft limit on how late abortions can be performed – after 20 weeks, a fairly typical cut-off for defining “late-term”, it is only legal to save the life of the mother, or to prevent serious permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the mother.  And it’s a very small number – according to Statistics New Zealand, in 2011 only 908 abortions, or 5.7% of the total, were performed after 14 weeks’ gestation (they don’t get specific after that).  In 2009, only 14 abortions were performed after 24 weeks – which is the legal cut-off in places like Great Britain.

I don’t know of any research in New Zealand on why pregnant people need later-term abortions, but there’s been a lot done in the United States.  It’s pretty simple:  people who are less privileged, by being young, less educated, or women of colour, are far more likely to access abortion later in pregnancy.

According to a study in 1987 of people in the US who had had late-term abortions:

  • 71% did not recognize [they were] pregnant or misjudged gestation
  • 48% found it hard to make arrangements for abortion
  • 33% [were] afraid to tell [their] partner or parents
  • 24% took time to decide to have an abortion

And I just have to include this one:

  • 8% Someone pressured [them] not to have abortion

When there are obstacles in the way of pregnant people accessing abortion, it takes longer to get an abortion.  And the further into pregnancy you get, the fewer, and less safe, and in many places more expensive, your options are.  That’s why so many anti-choice campaigns are aimed at delaying abortion – through patronising “waiting periods”, which presume that pregnant people simply can’t be trusted to know their own wishes, or forced trans-vaginal ultrasound scans, which add the fun element of coerced medical penetration into the mix.

In New Zealand, having to see at least two certifying consultants, plus getting an appointment at a clinic which may be a day’s journey away, while needing to take time off work and find someone to take care of the kids (over half the people who have abortions have already given birth to at least one baby) creates delays.

Add a frankly bullshit system of sex and sexuality education, add the huge social stigma around abortion, add being poor and panicked and just trying to ignore the problem away … and you have people getting later-term abortions.

Late-term abortions are not a problem in of themselves – they’re a problem because they reflect the shitty situations a lot of pregnant people find themselves  in, with a lack of education, a lack of support, and a system set up to make it as hard as possible for them to get quick, safe access to abortions.

We’ll always need late-term abortions, because sometimes things go wrong.

But we also need a complete overhaul of bullshit social attitudes which deny people the knowledge and ability and support to make the decisions that are right for them.

Pregnant people deserve to be trusted to make their own medical decisions.  They deserve to have information on their bodies and reproductive systems.  They deserve access to early, affordable, safe abortions.  And when they need them – because when you need them, you really, really need them – they deserve access to late-term abortions.


More posts remembering Dr Tiller will be collated at Abortion Gang – once the Americans wake up, of course!

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