When I talk with people about abortion it is usually on a college campus at a free speech table that asks the broad question “Should abortion remain legal?” At my most recent visit to campus, I wanted to try something new. I asked people their thoughts specifically about the availability of third-trimester abortion.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.
I asked this question for two reasons. First, abortion-choice political candidates have completely abandoned the “mushy middle” pro-choice view to become abortion extremists. They want states to pass laws as New York did in 2019 to legalize abortion throughout all pregnancy until birth, for any reason. For the majority of Americans, this means that they don’t have representatives running for office that share their views on abortion. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 53% of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances.” I wanted to ask people who are in the middle on this issue how they felt about the direction politicians are taking things and if that affected the way they voted. After all, that same Gallup poll showed a record high of 29% of Americans will only consider like-minded candidates on abortion.
Second, I wanted to engage with students about a significant incongruence our team has witnessed in thousands of past conversations. One of the most common pro-choice arguments is that abortion should be the woman’s legal choice because she is the only one who should have a say over what happens to her body. At the same time, most of the people we talk with who bring up this line of thinking also tell us that they think there should be restrictions put on abortion like gestational limits or circumstances like rape or if the mother’s life or health is at risk. Here is the problem: if it is true that abortion is justified because of a woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy then that must be true throughout all of the pregnancy regardless of her reasons for exercising that bodily autonomy.
You cannot make that argument for abortion during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, but not at 24 weeks of pregnancy because later abortions give you ethical qualms. Either you must consistently apply that thinking to all of pregnancy, or use a different argument altogether to justify early abortion. You can read our full article, Bodily Rights Arguments Necessitate Extremism, for more on this point.
Josh and I filmed a 30-minute podcast about this outreach, watch below:
BUT DO THIRD TRIMESTER ABORTIONS EVEN HAPPEN?
While preparing for this outreach our team anticipated getting this question a lot. We also guessed that its sister statement would also come up all day: “Late-term abortions only happen for medical necessity.” We actually encountered both of these significantly less than we thought we would. However, we put together a PDF that you can download here or read through below that provides some information on these points.
THE QUESTION WE WERE ASKED ALL DAY SHOCKED ME
Instead of questions about reasons for third-trimester abortion or statistics, all day long students asked me “What is the third-trimester?” I had people asking me if that was right before birth or “in the beginning” and I even had one guy ask me how many trimesters there are—yikes. I wasn’t expecting people wouldn’t know even the basic outlines of pregnancy, but it came as an important reminder of how uninformed many young adults are about fetal development, pregnancy, and abortion.
I was thankful once again for our outreach brochure which has a full fetal development chart from fertilization to birth as well as pictures after abortion for different developmental stages. I showed students pictures of a premature baby born at 24 weeks as well as older babies in the womb during the third trimester. This led to conversations about viability and C-sections as well.
Even if the other person didn’t bring up late-term abortions for medical necessity rhetoric, I often did around this point in the conversation. I explained that the media is flooded with people talking about how abortions that happen later in pregnancy happen only for medical reasons, but that abortion cannot actually save a woman’s life at that point. If something about the pregnancy is dangerous for the mother, doctors will recommend an emergency C-section.
Many pro-choice students told me that if a woman wants an abortion after the point of viability then she should choose to have a C-section instead. I affirmed their non-violent thinking and offered some push back from the pro-choice side. Again, if we look at the mantra of “my body, my choice” and if you agree with the sentiment that the government should not legislate women’s choices that affect her body, then wouldn’t it be wrong to limit her choices? If we say you can’t have an abortion after viability, that instead you can only schedule a C-section because that baby can survive outside of your body, then we are legally limiting her bodily autonomy. That violates the pro-choice rules.
I was very intentional not to put words in their mouth. I didn’t want to trick students into making or defending the bodily rights argument so I allowed them to correct me, tell me if they thought something different, or tell me if they thought I was being unfair. Their response wasn’t defensive; instead, they agreed with my point and said that this is a problem for them. Most of the time that day their reaction was to struggle with this inconsistency and then make a personhood argument instead to explain why early abortions are okay but later ones aren’t. I talked with several people who had been born prematurely. They had an easier time decisively saying that there should be limits on how late abortions are legal and available.
PERSONHOOD OVER BODILY AUTONOMY
Whether students argued against 3rd-trimester abortion or for its availability, we found that they leaned into a discussion about when the unborn child becomes a valuable human being. This stood out to us because in the last ten years or so we have seen bodily rights rhetoric and unfortunate circumstances around pregnancy dominate the beginning of the conversation. It isn’t until we pull back a few layers that we are even able to address personhood arguments that often drive deeply held beliefs in tandem with the bodily autonomy concerns. We didn’t expect this reaction when we were designing the display, but we see it as a positive outcome.
In our podcast, Josh and I speculated about why this question brought personhood almost immediately to the forefront of the conversation. Ultimately, I would say that the average person considers the older fetus to be a baby but not the young embryo as focusing the dialogue on the 3rd-trimester brought that contrast to light. And allowing someone to struggle to rationalize this aloud is incredibly helpful for them to see inconsistencies and problems with that view. If you give them the space to think through what it is that gives a baby value that makes it wrong to kill her that the embryo doesn’t have it lays the groundwork for a productive conversation.
THE INDIFFERENCE OF STUDENTS WAS APPALLING
The most common reaction I received at the table that day was a shrug and an “I don’t really know.” Some students seemed completely indifferent to the idea of third-trimester abortions. While apathy is a common obstacle of pro-life outreach that we seek to overcome, I have never received that level of disinterest from our “Should abortion remain legal?” sign. I have had students talk with me in front of that table for 40 minutes to two hours because they can’t get enough of the conversation. But for some reason, this new question left students without much to say.
Our team debriefed after the outreach and discussed how our conversations went and the attitude of indifference was universal. We have not definitively made a judgment as to why there was so much indifference compared to our other table questions. It could be anything from the change in wording “legal” to “available”, the culture of the campus we visited, that the rain put people into a tired mood, or that students didn’t really understand the question because they didn’t know what the third-trimester is.
DO YOU WANT TO EXPERIMENT WITH THIS TABLE?
We would like you to try out this tabling question with your group and email us about your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us what reaction you get on campus and provide context about what kind of outreach you normally do and the culture of your university.
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The post How College Students Responded to Questions About 3rd-Trimester Abortions originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”