Steven Waldman

Both sides have been throwing out dueling anecdotes to prove that late term abortions are either a) essential to saving the life of the mother b) involve a case of horrible fetal abnormality or c) are for entirely frivilous reasons. Suspecting that perhaps none of these examples quite present an accurate overall picture, I’ve been searching for data — a more systematic way of assessing the situation. Amazingly, given how much debate has surrounded these procedure, the information out there is pretty murky.
As it happens, Kansas, where many late-term abortions take place, does keep statistics.
Here are the results.
In 2008, there were 192 abortions involving fetuses who were more than 22 weeks old and who were deemed viable.
Of those, literally none were aborted to save the life of the mother.

This would seem to be a big blow to pro-choice arguments that most late term abortions preserve the life of the mother.
However, the study also shows that in each one of the 192 cases, doctors (including George Tiller) determined that an abortion was necessary because “The patient would suffer substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function if she were forced to continue the pregnancy.” By Kansas law, late term abortions are only legal if they fit those criteria.
So at first glance, these data would seem to refute the pro-choice claims that it’s often to save the life of the mother but support their claims that it’s avoid serious maternal injury. Perhaps these abortions really were to avoid eptopic pregnancies or situations where women would have permanent organ damage.
Alas, in the abortion world it’s never that simple. The pro-life Attorney General, Phill Kline, a few years ago subpeonad the records as part of a case he was trying to bring against George Tiller. He saw 60 records. Kline told me that every single one of them had a psychiatric rather than physical justification — the “major bodily function” that would be suffering impairment being the brain.
If Kline is right, this at a minimum refutes the idea — spreading on some websites — that the primary reason for late term abortions is either horrible fetal anomoly, saving the life of the mother, or protecting her from egregious physical harm. At least based on the Kansas data, the main reason is the mental health of the mother.
I asked the Kansas Health Department whether they had response to Kline’s claim. They didn’t. So far as I know, no one has denied that basic claim. If someone does, I’ll update it here.
Before I go any further, I want to express awareness of the fact that Tiller is now at a disadvantage in defending himself from these charges, having been assassinated in cold-blood by a pro-life activist.
The idea that most late term abortions in Kansas were to help mothers avoid emotional distress — as opposed to life of the mother or fetus — is important for getting an accurate picture of why they happen.
But does that mean these abortions were illegal? At first blush, emotional distress would not seem to fit the definition of damaging a “major bodily function.” But legally it might. That’s because an earlier Kansas Attorney General had ruled that psychiatric problems could be considered a “major bodily function.” To be within the law, though, they’d have to mental health problems that were “substantial and irreversible.”
This is a point of contention. Tiller claimed they were. Kline recruited Paul McHugh, a respected psyciatry professor, to review the cases — some of which claimed that the “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” was psychiatric. He concluded that, from a psychiatric perspective, that was never the case.

“I saw no file that justified abortion on that basis. All the files justified the abortions on the patient’s present state of mind of being distressed and social proposals that this person’s life would be less successful, less developed, less opportune if this child were born, and those are not psychiatric reasons, those are social reasons….
Some of them would be construed as trivial and others would be construed as serious. A trivial one would not being able to go to a rock concert. A more serious one would be to say, “I am going to be worried about the life of this child later on in life.”

Going just by McHugh’s analysis, it does seem that late term abortions were done outside the spirit if not the letter of the law. At a minimum, it gives one a sense of why pro-life activists distrust any abortion restriction that defines “mental health” as a legitimate reason for allowing late abortions.
Again, having been murdered, Tiller is not here to rebut the charge — and I’ve found no reports of him having done so after McHugh made his analysis public.
I’m going to end one area of potential common ground. McHugh says that the women who got abortions fundamentally felt alone and lacking support.
“The mothers were expressing great senses of distress and worry about their future. They were tearful and preoccupied with the idea that only an abortion would help them. They said that they were sad and frightened and they spoke about fears that their future life would be changed. They expressed ideas that they were not being given adequate support, and that they felt that the abortion would help them.”
This is something upon which both sides can agree: Some women are choosing abortion because they feel they have no other choice. Give them another choice — financial support to raise the child, financial and moral support to put it up for adoption — and some might have taken a different path.

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