Late-term abortions: Where is the line?

On the 16th of april our second Unusual Feminist Filmscreening took place and this time it was about abortion, a topic that has been a lot under political debate again. The documentary After Tiller gave us a glance into the lifes of doctors who perform third-trimester abortions in the US and the saddening stories of women who deal with  anti-abortion activists. Agnieszka Szuba, member of action group Gender & Sexuality, wrote her impression on the evening and how we can understand this issue from a feminist point of view.

Dr. George Tiller was a provider of third-trimester abortions in the US and was assassinated by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009. The documentary features the stories of the remaining 4 doctors who perform third-trimester abortions in the US, as well as some of their patients. I was excited to learn more about late-term abortions, as they are often excluded from the discussion on abortion rights. Yes, in many countries it is difficult enough to gain access to first- and second-term abortions, but it is also important to acknowledge that third-trimester abortions are sometimes needed as well, even if they are less common.Third-trimester abortions differ from earlier abortions in several important ways, which can make them a difficult topic to discuss.

Firstly, in the third trimester (from around the 25th week of pregnancy), the fetus is often able to survive on its own. The abortion procedure becomes also more complicated and carries more risks. Finally, third-trimester abortions are illegal in most places (including the Netherlands and most US states), and are only allowed under very special circumstances, such as when the mother’s life is in danger.

20170416_204449In the film, we see stories of different people who have chosen to have late-term abortions. Many patients come to the clinic because of tests which revealed severe fetal anomalies, meaning that the baby would be born with a serious, often untreatable disease resulting in suffering or early death. Such cases can be very painful for the parents, many of whom were attached to their unborn child, and some had already picked their name or arranged their room. However, in those cases abortion is often seen as the more humane  choice, both by the parent and by the doctor.

There are also other reasons why one might seek a late-term abortion. One of the patients was raped and after missing her period, could not face the possibility of being pregnant, which caused her to delay seeking help. Others struggle with making the right choice for a long time, such as the girl who suffered from pressure from her family as well as struggled with her own feelings of guilt. Some cannot get an abortion earlier because of lack of money, and some do not know that they are pregnant until late into the pregnancy.

For some of these situations, the doctors in the documentary talk about their difficulties with deciding whether they should perform the abortion or not. In many places, even if late-term abortions are legal, they are only performed if the patient offers a “compelling story” that continuing with the pregnancy would be detrimental to their health, safety, or well-being. However, even if a state does not pose such restrictions, doctors can choose to deny access to abortion to patients if they do not think that abortion would be the right choice.

This raises a question that was a common theme during our post-film discussion. Whose right is it to decide whether abortion is the right choice? Is it the doctor, the patient, politicians, the citizens? And how do we draw the line between an abortion that is justified and one that is not? Dr. Susan Robinson, one of the doctors in the film, came to the conclusion that it is impossible to draw the line. She says:

Where does it come from that I get to say (…) “Why, why do you want an abortion, you explain to me, justify it to me.” (…) What if you’re just not a good storyteller? (…) Because what I believe is that women are able to struggle with complex ethical issues and arrive at the right decision for themselves and their families. They are the world’s experts at their own lives.

20170417_132244The only line that she chooses to draw is safety – if the procedure is in any way dangerous to the patient, she would not perform it.

Even though not all of us initially agreed with that opinion, we saw during the discussion that it was very difficult to come up with objective, always applicable rules about when it is okay to have an abortion and when it is not. Every single person’s situation is different, and there are many factors that shape a person’s decision to have an abortion. Some are very personal, some are very complicated, and others deal with questions of morality, life and death, which there are no right answers to.

One thing that we agreed on is that late abortions are never easy for the patients nor for the doctors. Some of it will always be difficult, but there are many ways in which we could make the life of those who need abortions, and those who perform them, better. Doctors not having to fear for their life could be a good start. The anti-abortion movement makes their job very difficult, and the doctors in the film talked about having been threatened or attacked on multiple occasions. Anti-abortion protesters in front of clinics also make it difficult for the patients coming in, making them feel unsafe or guilty.

Making doctors feel safe would also allow for more clinics to open, allowing easier access to abortions. Many of the patients have had to travel from far and spend all their savings on the abortion. Another reason that can make the situation very distressing for people is the stigma surrounding abortion. This can cause people to be scared to tell others that they are pregnant of that they want to get an abortion, or to feel like getting an abortion would make them a terrible person. Many people are also not educated enough on the topic, and pro-life propaganda can make them have false beliefs about how abortions work, which again can cause distress.

20170417_132525For me, the main take-away message from the evening was that we have to trust those who might be considering an abortion to make their own choices. It can be easy for us to feel like we have all the right answers about what people should do. But having a late-term abortion is not something easy, pleasant, or something you can decide to do overnight, so chances are that those who decide to do it have very good reasons for it. We might not understand it, but it is important to keep in mind that for many it can be one of the most difficult decisions of their life, and it can be very hurtful and insulting when others question it. The only thing that we can do is to make sure that those who choose to go through with it are as safe as possible.


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