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What We Talk About When We Talk About Abortion

A British case is wrongly roped in the reproductive rights debate

Monday, a court in England sentenced 35-year-old Sarah Catt to eight years in prison after she pleaded guilty to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was 39 weeks pregnant—a point, by anyone’s measure, at which healthy fetuses are viable—when she induced labor and disposed of what she claims was a stillborn. She has yet to reveal the location of the body, which throws suspicion on her statement that the baby was born dead. Either way, the story is another example of the sad but thankfully rare occurrence of a woman giving birth in private and committing infanticide, abandoning a baby, or improperly disposing of a stillborn—though it does happen. In 1997, a New Jersey teenager gave birth at her prom and tried to cover it up by killing the baby, and in 2011 a 25-year-old woman smothered her two newborns rather than let her parents know she had given birth.

The problem is that what Catt did doesn’t have much relationship to the cluster of medical procedures that get grouped under the common term “abortion”—which is how the British press is describing Catt’s actions. Inducing labor with intent to miscarry is a much different thing than procedures designed to prevent birth in the first place. This word choice conflates Catt’s actions with ordinary abortions—and does so in a world where a woman’s right to have one is hotly contested. Indeed, anti-choice activists frequently trot out the misogynist myth that women routinely wait until well after the fetus is viable, and then, fickle creatures that we are, change our minds and get abortions. Anti-choice activists love to focus attention on late-term abortion—those performed after the 24-week cutoff established by Roe v. Wade—from posters of late-stage fetuses to Mike Huckabee claiming that Obama “believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb.”

The noise might lead most people to think late-term abortions are far more common than they are, but only 1.5 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks, and the incidence goes down dramatically each additional week into a pregnancy. Even Fox News admitted that only about 100 third-trimester abortions are performed in the United States per year. But the fact that abortion is heavily restricted after the second trimester both in the United States and in Europe does little to slow this legend down; anti-abortion activists claim that women—not just fickle but devious—exploit health exceptions to get late-term abortions. During the 2008 debates, John McCain regurgitated this claim, putting “health of the mother” in scare quotes and saying, “That’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.”

This myth of the inconstant, mendacious woman who uses legal abortion in order to get a doctor to abort her pregnancy right before she gives birth has gained so much traction that even supposedly pro-choice commentators like Margaret Carlson trot it out. “Over the years,” Carlson writes, “Roe’s legal framework has been eroded by loopholes large enough for an eight-month-pregnant teenager to walk through.” She gives no examples of these mysterious teenagers, cites no doctors who provide these abortions, and names no state in which regulations had become so lax. Only a handful of doctors in the country provide late-term abortions, and then, it’s usually for medically necessary reasons or because of fetal defects. Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated for providing these abortions, had a second physician sign off on all abortions after 24 weeks and was able to repeatedly demonstrate his careful documentation in court.

Already, anti-abortion forces are using Catt—one woman out of 3.5 billion in the world—to give more credence to this myth. If anything, though, this case demonstrates that it is not as difficult as those forces claim to create a legal structure that allows for both women’s bodily autonomy and respect of human life. Because Catt didn’t even seek an abortion until 30 weeks, well after the 24-week cut-off period, she was already prohibited by existing law from aborting a fetus that had reached the point of viability. She was also apparently denied one by a Marie Stopes clinic, the British equivalent of Planned Parenthood. In the United States, Catt would have been in the same situation. (Catt initially claimed she had gotten an abortion at the Marie Stopes clinic.)

Of course, the debate on late-term abortion remains unsettled, and there are many reasons women should be allowed to have them. Remember, Catt was convicted because she induced labor, on her own, after her fetus was viable. At 39 weeks, the only real way that Catt could have ended her pregnancy was by going into labor, induced or otherwise. That the baby was stillborn is something the court has taken on faith, and even if true, there’s no evidence, especially without a body to autopsy, that the drugs she took to induce labor also killed her baby. Catt’s actions fall outside the abortion debate. Banning abortion—no matter how many times or ways we do it—won’t stop a woman intent on committing a crime.

That doesn’t mean that legal abortion providers have nothing to do with this case. Catt’s false claim that she obtained an illegal abortion at Marie Stopes roped the clinic into the situation with slanderous accusations. Blaming the clinic just creates another victim. The clinic has a right to continue providing safe, legal abortions that are in no way implicated in Catt’s crime. Government must build abortion law around the needs of the one in three women who will get an abortion in her lifetime, not around criminally minded outliers like Sarah Catt.