Trump claims about abortion at nine months are flat-out false, medical experts say

Former President Donald Trump made false claims about late-in-pregnancy abortions during Thursday’s debate with President Joe Biden, experts say.

Abortion is poised to be one of the biggest topics that will define this year’s presidential election.

On Thursday, Trump repeated claims he made in 2016 regarding late-in-pregnancy abortions during a debate against then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

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

By definition, late-in-pregnancy abortions take place 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% occur at or before nine weeks of pregnancy, and just 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.

Any claim stating that it is is incorrect, Dr. Dara Kass, an emergency medicine physician in New York and a former regional director at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told NBC News.

“What he is talking about is murder, and it doesn’t happen in relation to abortion,” she said.

Trump also specifically targeted former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, stating, “He’s willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby.”

In a 2019 interview, Northam was pressed on proposed state legislation that would have eliminated a restriction that required abortions in the second or third trimester to be performed in a hospital. It also would have eliminated a requirement that three physicians agree that a late-in-pregnancy abortion is medically necessary.

Northam said he supported this decision being made between families and their physician, rather than having a law that made that decision for them.

“When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of the mother and the physician, and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that is nonviable,” Northam said in the interview.

Jill Wieber Lens, a law professor at the University of Iowa who is an expert on reproductive justice, said, “What Northam was talking about is a baby born with severe abnormalities, the kind of thing that a person learns about during late-stage pregnancy.”

A full-term pregnancy lasts 39 to 40 weeks. If a woman late in a pregnancy begins to experience life-threatening symptoms like pre-eclampsia, doctors may induce delivery. Even if the baby is extremely premature (less than 28 weeks), the odds of survival are good. This induction is not abortion, and if a healthy baby is killed after being born in this way, that is infanticide, experts say.

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

If a fetus is not expected to live, a physician and a family may need to have conversations such as, “Do we do life support if it’s ultimately futile,” Wieber Lens said, referring to perinatal hospice. “Northam was not talking about abortion, he was talking about how do we care for nonviable babies.”

Wieber Lens said she expects more families will now face choices related to perinatal hospice, particularly in states that do not have abortion law exemptions for congenital anomalies.

Complications can require difficult decisions

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

When pressed to define late-stage abortions, which does not have a technical definition, SBA Pro-Life America said it classifies “late-term abortions” as anything after 15 weeks.

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

It is true that a significant number of abortions that take place during the second trimester — which lasts from 13 to 27 weeks of pregnancy — likely are not medically necessary, experts say.

“You will still see a significant number of abortions for reasons such as a late discovery of pregnancy, or maybe a partner lost a job, or a person had a really hard time making a choice whether to terminate or not,” said Greer Donley, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, who is an expert on abortion law.

People may also struggle to access an abortion, forcing the decision later into pregnancy when they can finally access one, she said.

“Part of the reason later abortions are taking place, after 12 weeks, is because states have made it so difficult to get abortions early in pregnancy,” said Wieber Lens.

In some cases, abortions after 12 weeks are deemed medically necessary.

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

“It was devastating,” she said.

Abortions during the third trimester of pregnancy are rare, expensive, and usually are done when a life-threatening diagnosis is made. It’s also often difficult to find a doctor to do an abortion at this stage, even in states with no abortion bans, Donley said.

In the third trimester, which includes weeks 29 through 40 — or months seven, eight and nine of pregnancy — “we are almost exclusively talking about a majority are medically necessary abortions,” Donley said.

These abortions “are almost always the result of complications such as fetal anomalies, or a medical condition in which the woman’s life is in danger,” said Amita Vyas, an 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 so many different nuanced medical reasons, from different congenital anomalies to genetic things that come up. Most of these diagnoses cannot occur earlier in pregnancy.”

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