There have been two confirmed abortions performed during the third trimester of pregnancy in the state since 2000, according to Virginia Department of Health data. The last recorded third-trimester abortion was in 2004 and the other was in 2001.
The issue has attracted national attention after a video went viral of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, acknowledging that her bill would allow late-term abortions as long as one doctor certifies that the pregnancy threatens a woman’s physical or mental health.
Under current state law, a licensed physician can perform an abortion for any reason up until the third trimester, so long as the woman is offered certain information about abortion and alternatives and is shown an ultrasound.
Of the 43 states that have laws restricting abortion by how far along the pregnancy is, Virginia’s cutoff at the third trimester is the latest, according to information from the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Most other states restrict abortion after 20-24 weeks of pregnancy, with some states including an exception in cases of fetal abnormality or rape or incest, the group found.
Seventy-six of the 18,644 abortions in Virginia in 2015, or less than half of 1 percent, occurred after 20 weeks of pregnancy, according to the most recent available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, abortions that occurred after 20 weeks accounted for 1.3 percent of the 428,042 abortions the same year. CDC data do not separately track abortions performed during the third trimester, which begins in the 28th week. The first trimester lasts from the first to the 13th week and the second trimester is measured from the 14th to the 27th week.
The Health Department data note that there were nine abortions in the past three years that were performed in hospitals and for which the trimester was not recorded. State law requires any abortion after the first trimester to take place in a hospital. There were also 172 abortions performed at abortion clinics since 2016 where the trimester was not reported. The data provided by VDH did not include the number of abortions where the trimester was unknown from 2000 to 2015 and a spokeswoman was not immediately able to explain the reason that some abortion data does not include the trimester.
While the debate over third-trimester, or late-term, abortions has played out in the statehouse, physicians specializing in obstetrics and gynecology also differ on the issue.
Dr. Dan Grossman, an obstetrician and gynecologist who performs abortions and directs Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research arm of the University of California San Francisco, said that, though rare, third-trimester abortions are sometimes sought in cases where the fetus has a malformation or genetic problem.
“If the fetus is born, it’s known that the baby’s going to die and, in the process, suffer,” Grossman said.
He added that there could be very rare situations where the woman’s life is in danger, such as placenta previa, when the placenta covers the cervix and could cause the woman to bleed to death.
“In some cases, the best case is to deliver the fetus in hope the fetus would survive,” he said. “Other cases, it’s best to terminate.”
Dr. John Seeds, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University obstetrician and gynecologist who served on the Virginia Board of Health and who has been outspoken about his opposition to abortion, said that there were certain medical situations where it may be necessary to deliver the baby to save the mother. But he said it’s never necessary to perform an abortion in the third trimester.
“If the baby is in a viable range — anything after 23 weeks — we consider delivery, but we consider the delivery with the welfare of the baby in mind,” Seeds said. “By waiting until the third trimester, you significantly complicate the procedure and are killing the baby that could live outside the womb.”
Virginia law requires three doctors to verify the risks to the mother before performing any late-term abortion. Tran’s bill, which was voted down in committee, would have allowed one doctor to make the decision, as well as lifted other requirements tied to abortions at earlier stages.
Updated at 1:55 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1, with information from the Virginia Department of Health on the last third-trimester abortion in the state.