Posts misrepresent details of US Senate vote to codify Roe
CLAIM: Forty-nine Democratic senators voted that it should be lawful to kill a full-term baby the moment before birth while it is still inside its mother.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Misleading. Experts say this example is unrealistic and distorts the reality of abortion late in pregnancy. Abortions in the third trimester, which are extremely rare, typically occur because of a significant fetal abnormality, experts say. The bill that 49 Democratic senators voted to pass maintains the current constitutional standard that allows states to restrict abortions after fetal viability — the stage when a fetus is likely to survive outside the womb — but requires exceptions for risks to maternal life or health.
THE FACTS: As Democratic senators last week tried to enshrine into federal law the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, social media posts misrepresented the bill with claims that it would allow abortions during childbirth.
“This is a newborn baby,” read text alongside a picture of a healthy-looking newborn infant in a tweet shared more than 12,000 times. “49 Democrat senators just voted that it should be lawful to kill it the moment before this while it was still inside its mother.”
But the claim wrongly implies that abortions can be performed while a woman is in labor, which does not happen, experts say. Additionally, the Women’s Health Protection Act, which was blocked by Senate Republicans on May 11, would not change the current constitutional standard for abortions later in pregnancy.
The ruling in Roe v. Wade determined that states could restrict abortions after fetal viability, except when abortions are necessary to protect the health or life of the mother.
The bill that senators voted on this week used similar language, preserving an exception for “abortion after fetal viability when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”
Three legal experts consulted by The Associated Press confirmed the bill would not have changed the current legal standard for post-viability abortions if passed into law. Experts also said the online claims did not accurately reflect how rare abortions are in the third trimester and the fact that abortions aren’t administered during labor.
“The idea that this means that abortions can be provided to a woman who is at the end of a full-term pregnancy and just about to deliver a live infant is ridiculous,” said Kimberly Mutcherson, co-dean and law professor at Rutgers Law School.
“I don’t know of anyone who does anything resembling anything close to an abortion at 38 or 39 weeks,” said David Cohen, law professor at Drexel University. “It is a distracting and pernicious anti-abortion movement lie that has no bearing on medical practice.”
By the time a woman is in labor, the decision has been made to give birth, medical experts said.
“Abortion at the time of birth, it’s literally not a thing,” said Sarah Prager, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington.
Dr. Gabrielle Goodrick, medical director at Camelback Family Planning in Phoenix, an abortion clinic, said the notion that abortions can be performed while a woman is in labor “would be considered infanticide.”
“No doctor, law-abiding licensed physician of any kind would do something like that,” she said.
The vast majority of abortions occur before 20 to 21 weeks of pregnancy, experts said. In 2019, almost 93% of abortions occurred at or before 13 weeks’ gestation, while only 1% of abortions occurred at 21 weeks or later, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Abortions that occur late in pregnancy are very rare and typically involve medication that induces birth early, which is different from a surgical abortion, experts say. The procedure, which is also referred to as an induction abortion, typically happens if the fetus has a low probability of survival.
“Abortion in the way that socially is understood does not happen in the late third trimester. What happens are births,” said Dr. DeShawn Taylor, an OB/GYN and owner of Desert Star Family Planning, in Phoenix. “We’re talking about induction of labor for various reasons. When labor is induced, the outcome is a birth.”
For instance, one of the common reasons that induced abortions are administered late in pregnancy is anencephaly, a severe defect that leads to the fetus not having a brain, according to Prager.
“There can be significant heart or lung or kidney defects that are also not compatible with life,” Prager said.
Linda C. McClain, law professor at Boston University, said that the online claims that abortions could occur a minute before childbirth is misleading because it “suggests delivery could be in process but the pregnant person and the medical team could rapidly switch to abortion.”
“There is this unnatural fixation that we do things to cause the demise of the fetus during labor,” Taylor said. “And that just doesn’t happen.”
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.