Trump makes false claims about 'late-term abortion' during debate

Experts say former President Donald Trump made false claims about abortion late in pregnancy during his debate with President Joe Biden on Thursday.

Abortion is one of the biggest topics defining this year's presidential election.

On Thursday, Trump reiterated claims he made in 2016 about late-stage abortion during a debate against then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

He claimed: “They will take the life of the child in the eighth month, ninth month and even after birth.”

By definition, a late-stage abortion occurs at or after 21 weeks of pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 1% of all abortions occur at this stage of pregnancy. More than 80% of abortions occur at or before nine weeks of pregnancy, and only 6% occur between 14 and 20 weeks of pregnancy, which is during the second trimester. Abortion does not involve ending the life of a born baby.

Dr. Dara Kass, an emergency medicine physician in New York and a former regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told NBC News that any such claims are false.

“What he's talking about is murder, and that doesn't happen with regard to abortion,” he said.

Trump specifically targeted former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, saying, “He's willing, as we speak, to rip a baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill it.”

In an interview in 2019, Northam was quoted as proposing state legislation that would have eliminated the restriction that abortions in the second or third trimester must be performed in a hospital. It would also have eliminated the requirement that three physicians agree that an abortion in the late stages of pregnancy is medically necessary.

Northam said he supports this decision being made between families and their physician, rather than any legislation that would make the decision for them.

“When we talk about third-trimester abortions, it's done with the consent of the mother and the physician, and it's done in cases where there may be severe malformations, the fetus may be underdeveloped,” Northam said in the interview.

“What Northam was talking about is a baby being born with serious abnormalities, things that a person finds out about during the late stages of pregnancy,” said Jill Weber Lens, a law professor at the University of Iowa and an expert on reproductive justice.

A full-term pregnancy lasts from 39 to 40 weeks. If a woman develops life-threatening symptoms such as pre-eclampsia in the later stages of pregnancy, doctors may induce labour. Even if the baby is born very prematurely (less than 28 weeks), it has a good chance of survival. Experts say this induction is not an abortion and if a healthy baby is killed after birth in this way, it is infanticide.

Often, tests don't detect such serious complications until later in pregnancy, or pregnant women may not know there are serious problems with the fetus — or with their own health — until later. In fact, the number of women who either received no prenatal care during pregnancy or who didn't receive prenatal care until the third trimester — between the seventh and ninth months — rose to a record high of nearly 7% in 2021, according to CDC data.

If the fetus is not expected to survive, the physician and family may need to have a conversation about, “do we do life support if it's ultimately futile,” Weber Lens said, referring to perinatal hospice. “Northam wasn't talking about abortion, he was talking about how we care for non-surviving infants.”

Weber Lens said she expects more families will now be faced with options related to perinatal hospice, especially in states that do not have exemptions in abortion laws for congenital anomalies.

Complications can lead to difficult decisions

In an emailed statement to NBC News, a representative for SBA Pro-Life America said, “Most late-term abortions are elective, performed on healthy women and healthy babies, for the same reasons given for first-trimester abortions.”

When pressed to define late-term abortion, of which there is no technical definition, SBA Pro-Life America said it classifies any abortion that occurs after 15 weeks as a “late-term abortion.”

Medically, “late term” is a phrase that describes pregnancies after 41 weeks, which is beyond full term.

It's true that a significant number of abortions that occur during the second trimester — which lasts from 13 to 27 weeks of pregnancy — are probably not medically necessary, experts say.

“You'll still see a large number of abortions for reasons such as finding out late in the pregnancy, or perhaps a partner losing a job, or someone having a very difficult time deciding whether or not to have an abortion,” said Greer Donnelly, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on abortion law.

People may also have difficulty accessing an abortion, she said, leading them to decide to have an abortion later in the pregnancy when they finally can get one.

“One of the reasons abortions are so common after 12 weeks is that states have made it very difficult to obtain abortions in the early stages of pregnancy,” Weber Lens said.

In some cases, abortion after 12 weeks is considered medically necessary.

Donnelly was 20 weeks pregnant when a test revealed her son had a serious brain anomaly that was preventing his brain tissue from forming. Donnelly's pregnancy was already high-risk due to her cancer diagnosis. At 22 weeks pregnant, Donnelly made the difficult decision to have an abortion.

“It was devastating,” he said.

Abortions during the third trimester of pregnancy are rare, expensive, and usually performed when a life-threatening diagnosis is made. Finding a doctor willing to perform an abortion at this stage is often difficult, even in states that don't have abortion bans, Donnelly said.

In the third trimester, which includes weeks 29 through 40, or the seventh, eighth and ninth months of pregnancy, “we’re almost exclusively talking about the fact that most abortions are medically necessary,” Donley said.

These miscarriages are “almost always due to fetal anomalies or a medical condition in which the woman's life is at risk,” said Amita Vyas, MD, associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and director of the university's MPH Maternal and Child Health Program. “There are many different subtle medical causes that come up, from different congenital anomalies to genetic things. Most of these diagnoses may not be made earlier in the pregnancy.”

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