Kermit Gosnell late-term abortion scandal: How late in pregnancy is too late to choose?

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 20 2011 8:48 AM

The Baby Butcher

Pro-choice absolutism and the grisly abortion scandal in Philadelphia.

Pregnant woman. Click image to expand.
Should there be a limit on when women can seek abortions?

Should abortion be allowed late in pregnancy? Some feminists say yes. In recent months, several have stepped forward to condemn talk of compromise between pro-choice and pro-life moderates. Women's autonomy, they argue, must be absolute.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Now these absolutists face an awkward discovery. A grand jury in Philadelphia has indicted a local doctor for running an abortion clinic in which no limits applied. Babies of all sizes and gestational ages were casually butchered. It's a tale of gore and nihilism—and an occasion for pro-choice advocates to reflect on the limits of reproductive freedom.

The absolutists have been up in arms since October, when pro-choice moderates met with pro-lifers at Princeton University to discuss their differences and possible areas of collaboration. What irks the absolutists most is the notion of restricting second-trimester abortions. But their commitment to reproductive autonomy doesn't end at the second trimester. Implicitly and often explicitly, it extends to the third.

Last month, two leading reproductive rights activists, Steph Herold and Susan Yanow, published an essay rejecting the concept of time limits. They write:

Women have no obligation to make a decision as soon as they possibly can. The only obligation women have is to take the time they need to make the decision that is right for them. Don't we believe that women are moral decision makers, and carefully consider their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy? Don't we reject the anti-choice rhetoric that women make the decision to have an abortion callously? The pro-choice movement takes a step backward when we judge that a woman has taken too long to make what may be a life-changing decision. Shouldn't we want women to take the time they need to make the best decision, regardless of where they are in the pregnancy?

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Marge Berer, founding editor of Reproductive Health Matters, takes a similar position. In an article on the same site, RH Reality Check, she argues that "an abortion provider must never pass judgement on the validity of a woman's need for an abortion." Instead, "abortion providers should act as technicians with a clinical skill to offer." According to Berer, "anyone who thinks they have the right to refuse even one woman an abortion can't continue to claim they are pro-choice."

Berer takes particular offense at a moral limit suggested by pro-choice writer Frances Kissling. Kissling has proposed that "when a fetus reaches the point where it could survive outside the uterus, is healthy, and the woman is healthy, and she has had five months to make up her mind, we should say no to abortion." Berer quotes this statement with dismay and repudiates it with a question: "Who exactly are the 'we' that she [Kissling] now considers herself to be part of?" Berer concludes that "there will always be a handful of women" who don't make their abortion decisions before 20 or 24 weeks, and "the pro-choice thing to do is to support them and do the abortions anyway."

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, goes further. "Is there anything qualitatively different about a fetus at, say, 28 weeks that gives it a morally different status to a fetus at 18 weeks or even eight weeks?" she asks. "Why should we assume later abortions are 'bad'—or, at least, 'more wrong' than early ones?" Furedi rejects this assumption and concludes that "in later pregnancy, too, I believe that the decision, and the responsibility that comes with it, should rest with the pregnant woman. … We either support women's moral agency or we do not. … There is no middle ground to straddle."

Among other things, this means no time limits. Furedi argues that "women should have access to abortion as early as possible and as late as necessary." In her current essay, she writes: "To argue that a woman should no longer be able to make a moral decision about the future of her pregnancy, because 20 or 18 or 16 weeks have passed, assaults [moral autonomy] and, in doing so, assaults the tradition of freedom of conscience…" In fact, "the delivery of an abortion procedure in the second (and even third) trimester is preferable to its denial."

These essays vary, but together, they capture the absolutist worldview. There's no moral difference between eight, 18, and 28 weeks. No one has the right to judge another person's abortion decision, regardless of her stage of pregnancy. Each woman is entitled to decide not only whether to have an abortion, but how long she can wait to make that choice.