Pregnancy, whether intentional or otherwise, requires a woman to make a decision about the outcome for herself and her child. Approximately two percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 years have an abortion in the United States, resulting in termination of almost 25 percent of pregnancies. While most abortions are performed within the first trimester, late-term abortions are also done in some circumstances. Choosing a late-term abortion requires knowledge of the facts surrounding this procedure.
A late-term abortion is the termination of a pregnancy between 14 and 24 weeks. Late-term abortions before 20 weeks are typically performed as an outpatient procedure known as dilatation and evacuation. Dilatation involves dilating the cervix, which may be done with medication to soften the tissue before removal of the fetus. Abortions performed after 20 weeks may involve the injection of medication into the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby, in order to cause a stillbirth.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 88 percent of abortions occur within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with only 1.5 percent occurring after 21 weeks' gestation. In the United States, 67 percent of abortion service providers perform abortions after 13 weeks, in the second trimester. Eight percent of these providers provide abortions at 24 weeks. The possibility of a woman's death associated with abortion increases with the length of gestation. The risk of the mother's death for an abortion at between 16 and 20 weeks' gestation is one in 29,000, while the risk increases to one in 11,000 for abortions after 21 weeks.
Women have late-term abortions for various reasons. Some women, after having an ultrasound or genetic testing in the middle of the pregnancy, find out that the baby will be born with serious physical defects or a life-threatening illness. In other situations, the health of a mother may deteriorate during a pregnancy, and giving birth would cause serious harm or the likelihood of death for a mother.
Viability refers to how capable a baby is of sustaining life. Babies develop vital organs at certain points of time during gestation, and birth before this development typically prevents life outside the womb. For babies born prematurely, the threshold of life—that is, the age when a child is developed enough to live on her own—occurs at approximately 23 weeks' gestation. Babies born before this age have little chance of survival; even with the best medical care.
Late-term abortions are against the law in many states, but legal considerations vary throughout the country. Twenty-four states forbid abortions after the age of viability, and five states prohibit the practice in the third trimester. There are some exceptions to these rules, and some states will allow a late-term abortion if the health of the mother is in danger, or to save the life of the mother.