Joe Biden gives double thumbs up at his debate after-party
(Tasos Katopodis/Tasos Katopodis)

Reminder: ‘Late-Term Abortion’ Is Not a Real Thing

Joe, no

One of the most disturbing, infuriating moments of Thursday’s presidential debate was when Donald Trump and Joe Biden were asked to address the issue of abortion. And unfortunately, both candidates were the ones being infuriating.

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When the issue was brought up, Donald Trump tried to backpedal on his anti-abortion history after having spent two years bragging that he’s responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade. At the same time, he pushed a number of disgusting, completely false anti-abortion talking points. Making things even worse, the moderators made no attempt to fact-check in any way, just letting Trump’s lies run wild. Even worse yet, in Biden’s tepid attempt to push back, he used gross, misleading anti-abortion terminology that have no purpose but to rile people up with misinformation.

During his time to speak, Trump leaned into well-worn lies about “late-term abortion.” He and many other anti-abortion voices are frequently telling stories about babies being “ripped from the womb” and killed “up to and even after birth.” He claims Democrats want to normalize these actions and that this is happening in states without abortion restrictions.

First of all, killing a baby or anyone at all “after the moment of birth” is already a thing, it’s called murder and it’s already illegal. So … problem solved, I guess.

As for abortions later in pregnancy, Biden did vaguely allude to the fact that if and when this happens, it’s not a casual decision, it generally involves a traumatic medical emergency. Since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, we’ve seen women being turned away from emergency rooms because medical professionals are scared to perform necessary abortions due to this exact rhetoric. Those women have suffered extreme, life-threatening, and even fatal effects, thanks to lies like this.

The term “late-term abortion” is used to describe these fearmongering fantasies but it doesn’t mean anything. As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states, “This phrase has no clinical or medical significance. ‘Term’ historically referred to the three weeks before and two weeks after a pregnancy’s due date. […] Abortion does not happen during this period.”

If you’re looking for more accurate language, the ACOG suggests ‘Abortion later in pregnancy’ or reference weeks of gestation (for example, ‘abortion at 14 weeks of gestation’). I wish Joe Biden had consulted with the organization—or literally anyone knowledgeable about this issue. Because in arguing with Trump, he put very little effort into calling out the harmful lie that these procedures are even happening, let alone common. Instead, he repeatedly insisted that he supports Roe v. Wade and that that decision did not allow for “late-term abortions.”

“I am not for late-term abortion. Period, period, period,” Biden declared.

The health policy publication KFF sums up what’s happening well:

Abortions occurring at or after 21 weeks gestational age are rare. They are often difficult to obtain, as they are only available in a handful of states, performed by a small subset of abortion providers and are typically costly and time-intensive. Yet, these abortions receive a disproportionate share of attention in the news, policy and the law. Discussions on this topic are often fraught with misinformation; for example, intense public discussions have been sparked after several presidential candidates claimed there were abortions occurring “moments before birth” or even “after birth.” In reality, these scenarios do not occur, nor are they legal, in the United States. Discussion of this topic is distorted and inflamed by the terminology that is sometimes used to describe abortions later in pregnancy— including “late-term,” “post-viability,” “partial birth,” “dismemberment” and “born-alive” abortions.

If we use non-medical terminology created by the anti-abortion movement, we are giving them unnecessary ground and letting them set the terms of the conversation. We are playing into the “disproportionate share of attention” these extremely rare procedures born of traumatic experiences are getting. Using made-up, emotionally charged terms like “late-term abortion” gives them legitimacy.

Language matters! It’s really disheartening to see Biden falling into this trap that should be so easy to avoid. He has told us he’s making abortion a central issue in his campaign but that mostly (not entirely) comes in the form of pep-talk platitudes. He still has a lot of work to do to convince us he’s truly educating himself on the issue and taking it as seriously as he needs to.

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.