Third Trimester Abortion Procedures and Controversy

Young pregnant woman facing a tough decision

Third trimester abortion, sometimes referred to as a late term abortion, is highly controversial. Even some people who support a woman's right to choose an abortion early in her pregnancy are opposed to third trimester abortion.

The Abortion Debate

When discussing abortion, it's important to remember that the vast majority of abortions occur within the first trimester of pregnancy. Studies estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of all abortions happen within the first trimester, with the majority happening before six weeks gestation. The earlier an abortion is performed, the safer the procedure will be. The risk of complications increases the further along a woman is into her pregnancy, although the procedure is still generally no more dangerous than childbirth itself.

In the second trimester, abortions most often occur because the woman misjudged the date of conception, didn't realize she was pregnant immediately, or needed time to raise the money for the procedure. The second trimester of pregnancy is from weeks 13 to 28, with most abortions occurring before 16 weeks.

In the third trimester, abortion is very rare and generally only performed when the fetus suffers from a severe abnormality or in the event that continuing the pregnancy would endanger the life or health of the mother. It is estimated that about 0.05 percent of all abortions performed in the United States occur during the third trimester, although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not determine exact gestational age for abortions performed after pregnancy calendar week 20.

Abortion Law in the United States

In the United States, Roe v. Wade is the Supreme Court case that set the precedent for abortion law. The court said a woman's right to abortion for any reason cannot be restricted until the point of viability. After viability, however, abortion must still be allowed if the procedure is needed to preserve the life or health of the mother.

When is a fetus considered viable? Traditionally, 28 weeks gestation was considered the earliest point at which a fetus could live outside the womb. However, with the increased advances in technology, many medical professionals now consider the point of viability to be 24 weeks gestation. Some studies have been published defining late term abortion as abortions that occur after either 12 or 16 weeks gestation, although the absolute earliest a pregnancy would be viable is 21 weeks gestation.

Different states have different laws regarding third trimester abortion, so it is important to make sure you understand the legalities of the procedure in your state. For example, 10 states require a second physician to approve the procedure and nine states ask that a physician be present to treat the fetus in the event that is born alive. You can learn more about the various state laws regarding late term abortions by reviewing the PDF download available on the Guttmacher website.

How Are Third Trimester Abortions Performed?

There are two main ways a third trimester abortion can be performed:

  • Early labor induction, which is most often used when the fetus suffers from a severe abnormality that was not detected earlier in the pregnancy and would make it highly unlikely he would survive long after birth.
  • Intact dilation and extraction (IDX or D&X), which is sometimes referred to as partial-birth abortion in pro-life literature and most often used when the health of the mother is being threatened and she wishes to try to preserve her future fertility.

Additional Information

If you have questions about abortion, please review the following articles from LTK Pregnancy:

Third Trimester Abortion Procedures and Controversy