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Another Voice: Advances in science, medicine lower the age of fetal viability, challenging abortion

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On the highway heading south through downtown Buffalo, a billboard is displayed that describes New York’s current abortion policy and calls for a repeal of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA). The billboard elicits much-needed attention to the inconsistencies among New York’s abortion laws, current scientific understanding of fetal viability and the public’s lack of support for later-term abortion (20-plus weeks of gestation).

Viability is the ability of an unborn baby to survive outside of a mother’s womb, with or without medical intervention. In 1970, New York first legalized on-demand abortion pre-viability, which at the time rested within 24 weeks’ gestation. Decades later, in 2019, despite medical science and public consensus opposing later-term abortions in New York, the RHA was passed, which continued to legalize abortion for any or no reason within 24 weeks of pregnancy. By 2019, however, it was crystal clear that unborn children can be viable before this gestational age.

In the past 50 years, neonatal medical treatments have improved significantly and the age of fetal viability has decreased. Developments in science, technology and treatment practices have enabled premature babies as young as 22 weeks, and even younger, to survive outside of their mothers’ wombs. This change was not unforeseen. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized pre-viability abortion nationally, would be “on a collision course with itself” as medical advances moved the viability line.

According to the most recent data from Johnston’s Archive – maintained by William Robert Johnston, who writes for the Global Life Campaign – every year, between 9,100 and 15,400 abortions occur after 20 weeks’ gestation in the country. New York contributes disproportionately to these numbers, with an average of 1,660 reported abortions after 20 weeks each year.

As the billboard illustrates, unborn children within 24 weeks can be aborted on-demand in New York, despite their viability. Neither fetal anomalies nor risks to women’s health are necessary. Further, fetal anomalies or risks to mothers’ lives or physical health are not the primary reasons why the overwhelming majority of later-term abortions occur, including third trimester abortions. Like first trimester abortions, studies show that most second and third trimester abortions are “elective, done on healthy women and healthy fetuses.”

When scientific evidence regarding human viability has advanced, so should the law. Our laws are also supposed to reflect the will of the people. Anything less, dehumanizes and undermines democracy.

Michele Sterlace is executive director of Feminists Choosing Life of New York Inc.

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