While virtually all abortion providers outside of Texas offer their services to women during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, there are a sharp drop after this point. About half of clinics don’t offer abortions at week 15, the cutoff set by Mississippi. At week 24, less than 10% of clinics are doing so. (The notable exception is Texas, where providers were recently barred from offering abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — though that law surely won’t last long.)
Why have so many providers restricted access to abortion in a way that roughly matches the sensibilities of most Americans? And why have they continued to do so even in the face of decades of pressure from other pro-choicers to offer abortion on demand and without excuse? Partly because the suppliers share Americans’ moral intuitions. As a lot of research shows, providers generally don’t like to offer abortions at some point in the second trimester when the fetus becomes more recognizably human.
A good example is Dr. Susan Wicklund, a heroine of the abortion rights movement. In the face of death threats, she attracted attention for going to work with a loaded revolver ready for use. Less noted was its decision to limit its practice to first-trimester abortions. Recalling his decision, Dr. Wicklund, who is now retired, wrote“Seeing an arm pulled through the vaginal canal was shocking. One of the nurses in the room escorted me away when the color left my face. She continued, “From that point on, I chose to limit my abortion practice to the first trimester: 14 weeks or less.
In her drive to confront the murderous enemies of abortion, but not second-trimester abortions, Dr. Wicklund embodies our conflicting urges.
Anti-abortion groups have been less willing to make such compromises, as Dr. Wicklund well knows. But that could change if Roe is scaled back to protect a narrower range of abortions, and our legal system moves to a compromise like his — a compromise that grants broad access to first-trimester abortion but largely restricts it to second-trimesters. and third. Despite the recent drama of abortion law in Texas, I suspect that in post-Roe America, the same moral intuitions that have long moderated abortion providers may eventually temper abortion opponents as well.
Since the pro-life movement merged, its most important mobilization tool was images of second and third trimester abortions. They have emboldened countless activists, giving them the assurance that they are waging a war for basic human rights. Such images have been abundant in the movement because Roe has created legal space for a minority of late abortion specialists, some of whom have been a thorn in the side of the pro-choice movement. Without these clinics and the images that emerge from them, it may be harder for pro-life leaders to sustain the moral passions of their movement — as well as the fiction that most aborted fetuses look like newborns.
This conclusion is born from experience. The movement’s leaders struggled to rally their base against “partial-birth” abortion, but had trouble mobilizing it against embryonic stem cell research. Like their pro-choice counterparts, pro-life activists simply can’t have much feeling for embryos that aren’t recognizable as human. And as any activist knows, it is emotions, not just principles, that move movements.