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FactCheck: Who got it right on "abortion up to birth" - Cora Sherlock or Ivana Bacik?

FactCheck settles a heated dispute about late-term abortions that took place over the airwaves last week.

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Updated: 10 September

LAST WEEK’S ANNOUNCEMENT of Judge Mary Laffoy as chair of the upcoming Citizen’s Assembly has put abortion close to the top of the news agenda once again.

And on Thursday, Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show hosted a debate between pro-choice Senator Ivana Bacik and the Pro-Life Campaign’s Cora Sherlock.

The two got into a heated dispute when Sherlock accused Bacik of supporting abortion up to birth, and claimed:

There are many jurisdictions which allow abortion up to birth.

Bacik rejected this, and told Sherlock to “Stop lying”.

So who’s right on this particular issue?

(Remember, if you hear an argument about facts over the airwaves, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet @TJ_FactCheck).

Claim: There are many places in the world where abortion up to birth is legal.
Verdict: TRUE

  • We found 54 jurisdictions in 22 countries where abortion is legal up to birth, including some of the world’s most populous nations
  • Most of these jurisdictions only allow abortion up to birth in exceptional circumstances, half of them only to protect the life or health of a woman
  • The available data strongly indicates that “late-term” abortions constitute a very small percentage of all abortions.

What was said:

baciksherlock Source: RollingNews.ie

During the course of the debate about the Citizen’s Assembly, which you can listen to here, Sherlock accused Bacik of supporting abortion up to birth, something the Labour Senator strongly denied.

Ivana Bacik: No, of course I don’t. Nobody does. That’s utter nonsense…I support the sort of sensible time limits that you have in every other European jurisdiction.
Cora Sherlock: But you know, there are many jurisdictions which allow abortion up to birth, so do you support that?
IB: No there aren’t, Cora. You know it, and I know it…No Cora, there aren’t. Just stop lying.

Guest host Jonathan Healy pressed Sherlock on which countries allowed abortion up to birth, and this exchange ensued:

CS: I don’t have the list of countries, here, where that happens.
IB: No of course you don’t, because it just doesn’t happen.

The Facts

The truth is that there are countries in the world, most of them in Europe, where abortion is legal up to birth, and the practice does happen, albeit relatively rarely.

In response to a request for evidence, Cora Sherlock provided third-party sources supporting the claim in the case of 12 countries.

In the course of researching this FactCheck, we found 54 jurisdictions in 22 countries, although there are likely to be more than that, and this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

Furthermore, the fact that abortion until birth is legal in a particular jurisdiction does not necessarily mean it is readily available to women.

Notably, abortion up to birth is legal in some of the world’s most populous nations – China, the USA, and Russia, albeit under specific, exceptional circumstances in the case of Russia and the US.

If you want the short-hand version of this FactCheck, you’ll find it in the two charts below.

If you want details and sources, read on.

abortioncountriessept Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

abortioncountriessept2 Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Ireland

  • Outlawed with the exception of where there is a “real and substantial” risk to the life of a woman, including in cases of suicide, and where it is judged that only abortion can save her life
  • The 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act does not stipulate time limits for such abortions

Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland)

  • Usually available up to 24 weeks (six months)
  • Available at any time, including after 24 weeks: to save a woman’s life or prevent serious permanent harm to her physical and mental health; where a child is likely to be born with a serious physical or mental disability
  • In 2015 in England and Wales, 230 out of 185,824 abortions (0.12%) took place after six months, and 52 (0.03%) took place after 32 weeks, the latest gestational age band specified
  • In Scotland in 2015, 142 out of 12,082 abortions (1.2%) took place after 18 weeks.

France

  • Generally available up to 12 weeks
  • After 12 weeks, available at any time in a pregnancy if a multidisciplinary consultative team decide there is a risk of serious health harms to the woman, or a strong probability that the child would be born with a serious, incurable condition
  • Mandatory waiting periods and offers of counselling at various stages
  • In 2012, 14,206 out of 163,652 abortions (8.7%) took place after 12 weeks. 1,051 (0.6%) took place after 15 weeks.

Netherlands

Belgium

  • Up to 12 weeks, available where a woman is in “distress” over her pregnancy
  • At any time, including after 12 weeks: where there is a serious risk to the health of a woman; where it is certain a child would be born with a severe and untreatable health problem
  • In all cases, a doctor must inform a woman of the medical risks associated with abortion, and the alternatives available to her, and there is a mandatory six-day waiting period between the first consultation and the termination
  • After 12 weeks, two doctors must agree to authorise the abortion.

Sweden

  • Up to 18 weeks, available on request
  • At any time, including after 18 weeks, an abortion must be authorised by the government’s National Board of Health and Welfare, and only where there is a serious risk to her health or her life. (Confirmed to FactCheck by the National Board of Health and Welfare – legislation is in Swedish, here)
  • In 2015, 2,517 out of 31,430 abortions (8%) took place after 12 weeks.

Portugal

  • Available up to 10 weeks on request. Available at any stage in a pregnancy where a foetus is considered to be nonviable
  • All women must sign a written consent form in advance, and wait at least three days before undergoing a termination
  • In 2014, 3% of abortions took place after 10 weeks.

5/7/2016. Pro Life Campaigns Issues Cora Sherlock (second from left) with other pro-life activists at a demonstration last moth. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Denmark

  • Available on request up to 12 weeks.
  • After 12 weeks, allowed up to birth in cases: of risk to the woman’s health; of rape and incest; of foetal abnormality; where having a child would be a “serious burden” to the woman; other circumstances
  • After 12 weeks, application must be made and authorised by a maternity hospital committee
  • In 2013, 4.3% of abortions took place after 12 weeks, 1.3% after 17 weeks.

Austria

  • Available on request up to 12 weeks
  • At any time, including after 12 weeks: where there is a serious risk to the life or physical and mental health of a woman; in cases of serious physical or mental impairment of the foetus; where the pregnant female is under 14 years of age;

Switzerland

  • Generally allowed up to 12 weeks, but exception after that to prevent “serious physical injury” or “serious psychological distress” to the woman
  • 4.8% of abortions took place after 12 weeks in 2015.

Russia

  • Up to 12 weeks, available on request
  • Up to 22 weeks, available in cases of rape and incest
  • At any time, including after 22 weeks, available where a woman or foetus is diagnosed with any of a number of medical conditions, including tuberculosis, diabetes, heart disease, some genetic conditions and mental illnesses.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

  • Available on request up to 10 weeks
  • After 10 weeks, a hospital committee can authorise an abortion: to prevent the death of, or serious harm to the health of a woman; where a foetus is diagnosed with a serious physical or mental disability; in cases of rape or incest
  • After 20 weeks, a special ethics committee can authorise an abortion on the same grounds as above.

Serbia

  • Broadly the same law as Bosnia & Herzegovina, both derived/transferred from a 1977 law in Yugoslavia.

Macedonia

  • Up to 10 weeks, available on request
  • Available at any time, including after 10 weeks, where: there is a serious risk to the life or health of a woman; where the child is likely to be born with serious physical or mental disabilities; in cases of rape or incest; where a woman may face “grave personal, family, material or other circumstances” that could harm her health.

Albuquerque Abortion Ban A campaigner in the US state of New Mexico advocates a ban on abortion after 20 weeks in a 2013 referendum, which was ultimately defeated. Source: Associated Press

USA

  • Seven states do not have a law stipulating a gestational age limit for abortions, and so effectively allow terminations up to birth
  • 21 states have limits based on gestational age or foetal viability, but allow exceptions for: a threat to a woman’s physical health; a threat to the woman’s life; in cases of rape or incest; in cases of foetal abnormality
  • In 2012, abortions performed after 21 weeks constituted between 0% and 5.5% of all abortions, from state to state.

Canada

  • Abortion is entirely decriminalised, and there are no legal barriers based on reason or gestational age
  • In 2014, 605 out of 24,739 abortions (2.4%) took place after 21 weeks.  

Australia

Abortion is not governed by national law, but rather by the states

New South Wales

  • Generally available up to 20 weeks
  • At any time, including after 20 weeks, available in cases of a serious danger to the life or physical and mental health of a woman. (Spokesperson for the NSW Health Ministry)
  • In every case, a physician performs an “assessment of need”, except where there is an imminent threat to a woman’s life
  • After 20 weeks, a physician should (but is not strictly required to) consult with a multidisciplinary expert team.

South Australia

  • Up to 20 weeks, available on request
  • From 20 to 28 weeks, available where there is a probability the child would be born with a serious physical or mental disability
  • Available at any time, including after 28 weeks, but only for the sole purpose of “preserving the life of the mother”. (Spokesperson for the South Australia Attorney-General)
  • In 2013, 94 out of 4,681 abortions (2%) took place after 20 weeks.

Victoria

  • Up to 24 weeks, available on request
  • At any time, including after 24 weeks, available where two doctors “reasonably [believe]” that the abortion is “appropriate in all the circumstances” – taking into account the women’s “current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances”.

Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

  • No specific, prescribed gestational age limit in law
  • Up to 20 weeks, available on request
  • After 20 weeks, must be authorised by a Termination Review Committee, or ultimately, by the Health Department’s Clinical Ethics Committee
  • At any time, including after 24 weeks, available to prevent harm to the woman’s health, or in case of severe foetal abnormalities. (Health Department Spokesperson).

Queensland

  • Abortion is a criminal offence, but there is an exception: to preserve a woman’s life; or where her physical or mental health is in serious danger
  • No specific, prescribed gestational age limit in law
  • Gestational age is a “circumstance to be considered when considering whether the termination was reasonable”. (Spokesperson for the Queensland Attorney-General)
  • In 2015, 129 out of 10,698 abortions (1.2%) took place after 20 weeks, 12 out of 10,698 abortions (0.1%) took place after 28 weeks.

New Zealand

  • Available at any stage in the pregnancy where the doctor performing the abortion believes it is “necessary to save the life of the woman or girl or to prevent serious permanent injury to her physical or mental health”
  • In 2014, 67 out of 13,137 abortions (0.5%) took place after 20 weeks.

IFPA Campaigns Launch 2005 file photo of Ivana Bacik at a pro-choice event hosted by the Irish Family Planning Association. Source: Graham Hughes/RollingNews.ie

China

  • No gestational limit is included in Chinese law as it relates to abortion, and termination is therefore permitted at any stage in the pregnancy
  • Abortion as a method of gender selection is banned.

Singapore

  • Available on request up to 24 weeks
  • After 24 weeks, available where the abortion is deemed “immediately necessary to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”
  • In 2012, three out of 10,624 abortions (0.03%) took place after 24 weeks.

Vietnam

  • As of 2014, available at any time, and for any reason except gender selection, which is banned.

South Africa

  • Up to 12 weeks, on a woman’s request
  • Up to 20 weeks: in a case of rape or incest; where there is a risk to the physical or mental health of a woman; where the foetus has a severe physical or mental abnormality; where continuing the pregnancy would have a significant, negative social or economic effect on the woman
  • After 20 weeks: where a doctor, having consulted another doctor or midwife, decides continuing the pregnancy would: endanger the woman’s life; risk injury to the foetus; result in a “severe malformation” of the foetus.

Conclusion

Without getting into semantics over the definition of the word “many”, it is clear from the context of the debate that Cora Sherlock was pointing out that there are several places, some of them in Europe, where abortion up to birth is legal, in an effort to encourage Ivana Bacik to define a gestational age limit she would support.

This claim is TRUE. In 27 out of 54 jurisdictions discovered by FactCheck, abortion at any stage is legal only to protect the life or health of a woman.

Sherlock’s subsidiary claim, that Bacik supports or has supported the legalisation of abortion up to birth, is FALSE.

Bacik herself rejects this firmly, although in response to a query from FactCheck, she did not precisely stipulate a gestational age limit that she would support.

However, she did articulate a positive view of the 1974 US Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade, which – as she said during last week’s debate – ruled that: “In the third trimester, the right to life of the foetus prevails”.

And also during that debate, she stated:

Viability [of the foetus], at the end of the second trimester, is generally, internationally, in most sensible, compassionate jurisdictions, the cut-off point.And that, I think, is a sensible approach which we should adopt.

This strongly suggests support for a legal limit at the point of 24 weeks, with viability (the ability of the foetus to survive outside the womb, including with artificial assistance) as an important factor.

Update: This article has been updated to include Ireland among those countries where abortion is legal at any stage in a pregnancy, albeit under strictly limited circumstances.

This is consistent with the criteria applied in the inclusion of certain other countries. 

The charts have also been updated to reflect this addition, and we have added the fact that in half of the jurisdictions studied, abortion is legal any stage only to protect the life or health of a woman.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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