The Trouble With 20-Week Abortion Bans

On November 19th, my hometown of Albuquerque New Mexico will vote on a 20-week abortion ban, similar to the one that was passed in Texas last summer. As someone who has been pro-choice since before I knew what an abortion was, I am enraged by this and am discussing it with anyone who will listen.

Usually, when I bring up this topic with friends and acquaintances, the conversation goes something like this:

            Me: They’re trying to pass a 20-week abortion ban in my hometown.

            Friend: Really? Wait…how many months is 20 weeks?

            Me: Five.

            Friend: Five months? That sounds pretty standard for an abortion ban.

It’s a common opinion that many people our age seem to share. However, it’s a misconception. 20 weeks is not standard for an abortion ban; not in individual states, not in Roe v. Wade, and not in terms of women’s health.   

Most states have viability bans, which means a woman cannot have an abortion if her fetus can live outside the womb, which is understood by health care professionals to be 24 weeks, or six months. Currently, 9 states have bans on abortion at 20 weeks, ten have no restrictions on abortion, and the rest have viability bans.

Roe v. Wade gave women the right to have an abortion for any reason in the first three months of pregnancy, without interference from states. It gave states the right to pass abortion regulations for the second and third trimester if it would protect the mother’s health. States are only allowed to pass regulations that will protect the life of the child in the third trimester. That means, if a state is trying to pass a law to ban abortion at 20 weeks because allegedly, fetuses feel pain, it would be an unconstitutional law.

But why is a 20-week abortion ban so dangerous? If most states ban abortion after 24 weeks, how is this ban different? The people who have abortions after 20 weeks are usually not people who decided they did not want their baby, or realized they were pregnant too late. Usually, the people who have an abortion so late realize that there is something wrong with their child that will prevent it from living outside the womb at all. Fetal abnormalities that would prevent a baby from surviving outside the mother are usually only seen on ultrasounds at or after 20 weeks. Some women are often unable to access prenatal care during their first trimester, and the women who do often decline genetic screening. This prevents physicians from diagnosing abnormalities early. Therefore,  an ultrasound at 20 weeks is the recommended and optimal time for a complete fetal anatomy scan of all major organs, fetal growth, and to diagnose any anomalies.  This ultrasound is rarely performed before the 20-week mark, as many anomalies are usually not detectable earlier in pregnancy.

No woman should be forced to carry a child for nine months if she knows the child will not live, just as no woman should be forced to have an abortion for a child that she is told will die outside her womb. The decision to terminate a pregnancy must be between a woman and her health care provider, especially if a severe birth defect is involved.

First Published: November 11, 2013