Why did she wait so long?

A very small percentage, less than 6%, of women who get abortions are sixteen weeks or more past their last menstrual period.  These later abortions are still safer than giving birth and nearly all can be performed with a local anesthetic in an outpatient setting.  As a woman's pregnancy continues, the abortion procedure becomes progressively more complicated and the social circumstances of women who get abortions past 18 or 20 weeks of pregnancy are usually a lot more complicated. Many of these women are very young, some as young as 12 years old; a 12-year-old is generally accompanied to the clinic by her mother.  Many of them are from rural areas, far from the large, urban centers where abortion is more available.  They're more likely to be poor and of color. Read Guttmacher Report "Who has second-trimester abortions in the United States?"

The opponents of abortion carry blow-up photos of the remains of aborted fetuses, and these photos do arouse pity for the fetus, but if we could know the circumstances that led each woman to have that late abortion, we would have as great or greater empathy for her, and we would begin to understand how the forces of oppression--racism, classism, sexism--result in a woman having the ultimate responsibility to resolve the dilemma.

Ultimately, those who would deny women later abortion have no adequate alternatives; they simply would force the woman to have the baby despite all difficulties she and her family might face, or refer her to paltry and inadequate social support, or adoption.  They blame the woman for having had sex in the first place.

Even many of those who champion the right to choose find it difficult to understand how a woman could wait so long to have her abortion.  To answer the question, "Why did she wait so long", we're listing the reasons why and relating some of their stories, but anyone who helps women to get later abortion knows that there are as many reasons as there are women.


If  a woman is having regular menstrual periods, and she's had unprotected sex
    with a man, she's usually alert to any change or delay in her menstrual cycle.  But,
if  she doesn't have regular menstrual periods; or
if  she is using birth control; or
if  she's going through menopause; or
if  she has an illness that produces similar symptoms;
if  she has a "false" period, or if her symptoms of pregnancy are masked by a temporary illness; or
if  she's young and doesn't have basic information about how her body functions;
if  she had an early abortion that didn't end the pregnancy;

Both she AND her health care provider may miss early pregnancy signs.

Mary's story

I met Mary and accompanied her to a physician's office where she received an abortion.  Mary was 21 weeks pregnant at that point.  She had been referred to me by an abortion clinic who only performed abortions up to 18 weeks after the last menstrual period.  Two months prior, the clinic had performed an abortion.  Unfortunately, the abortion was not effective; she remained pregnant.  "I already have two little girls. I'm divorced and I was in the final part of completing my master's degree.  The clinic was wonderful and I thought everything was solved, but then I got the flu, or at least I thought it was the flu.  I was working so many hours, I just figured I was run down and kept on going-even though I was dragging myself around." She showed me the pictures of her children.  Mary returned to the waiting room after her abortion was over.  She looked pretty bedraggled.  We stopped for a quick bite on the way to the airport.  She thanked me again and again.  She looked more rested; then she picked up her tote bag, which had a couple of books in it; then she gave me a hug good-bye and went to her plane.

Phyllis' story

I was an administrator of our health center and I never met Phyllis, but I helped her health worker to locate an very experienced abortionist who would perform the 28 week abortion.  Phyllis was 45 and when she went to her doctor because her period had stopped, he told her she was in menopause.  A couple of months later, she figured out that she was pregnant.  Her husband, who was 50, flatly refused to take on the raising of a baby.  They had three grown children, and he said he was "no way going to go through that all over."  Her children said, "Mom, we'll raise the baby. He'll never know."  After Phyllis thought about it, she knew that this kind of secret could never be kept. "Well, then, adopt it out."  Phyllis and her husband were settled in their community, and she couldn't picture herself going through the elaborate charade of being feted at the baby showers that her friends would give her, etc., and then coming home from the hospital, telling everyone that the baby had died.  Her health worker found an excellent abortionist who, for a high fee, performed the abortion.


There are no abortion facilities in the majority of counties in the nation. A woman may have to travel several hours and stay overnight. Some states require that the woman have parental consent or at least talk to her parent or another adult OR get permission from the Court; this may take a couple of weeks.  If she must be absent from school or stay overnight, this may take weeks to arrange.  Most states do not fund abortions, and many women have difficulty in raising the money.  As the pregnancy advances, the cost may increase drastically, requiring saving or borrowing more.


Very young women often do not tell anyone they are pregnant until the pregnancy becomes obvious.  They are hoping that either they have just missed a period (fairly common when our periods first start), or they hope they'll miscarry.  By the time they have to tell someone, they may not be able to get an abortion in their local facility.


A substantial number of women would like to carry the pregnancy and have the child, but any number of obstacles stand in their way, and they need time to fully consider their options.  They may be young and unmarried and unable to take on the responsibilities of being a single mother.  They may be in college or some other kind of educational or training program, or they may have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they would be forced to give up if they go through with the pregnancy and have the child.  They may have small children and are unequipped to care for and afford an additional child. They may have problems with their health, their family or their partner that have to be considered.  Many of these undecided women do in fact have the baby and deal with these difficulties.  Many reluctantly come to the decision that they cannot go through with the pregnancy at that time.


It's amazing how often a woman gets pregnant just at the worst times!  One of the worst times to get pregnant is the first time a woman has sex with the man.  She has only been intimate with him for a short time, and it's too early to tell if the relationship will deepen.  And, even if she is madly in love with him, the strain of an unexpected pregnancy might force the couple to skip some of the usual courtship stages.  So some women hold off telling their partner that they're pregnant, in the hopes that the relationship will progress well.  Then, if it doesn't, they're left to raise a child by themselves or get an abortion.

Even worse, sometimes a woman is in an unworkable relationship, maybe even married and with other children when she finds out she's pregnant. She may try family counseling or seek support to persuade her partner to quit drinking or quit physically abusing her or her children.  Finally, she comes to realize that she needs to have an abortion and end the relationship.

Probably the most typical scenario is the woman who has lived with or been married to a man for years who has assured her many times that if she gets pregnant, he'll be fine with it. Then, the inevitable happens.  They find out she's pregnant and she sees a whole new side of him.  Either he denies responsibility or blames her, or worse yet, the relationship changes and he becomes overbearing or neglectful.  After a couple of months to see if they can work things out, she realizes that he is not going to change for the better and things can only get worse, and she needs to get an abortion


Women who come from very religious backgrounds or who are in a relationship with a traditional man may experience pressure from their family or friends to keep the pregnancy.  Many women in this situation opt to have the child, but many eventually come to believe that the pressures which make her consider abortion cannot be ignored, and they get the abortion.


A number of things can happen to change a woman's decision to have a child.  Her partner may lose his job and they no longer have the money to afford to keep the pregnancy.  More rarely, her partner becomes very ill or even dies, leaving her alone to raise the child.  Sometimes she contracts an illness or finds out that she has a health condition that could make it dangerous for her to continue the pregnancy.

Lucha's story

I got a call from a friend that my former client, an abortionist who had been in medical practice for over 20 years, had been arrested for murder--for performing an abortion of a 24-week fetus.  I visited him in jail and he told me the story.  He performed the abortion in his satellite clinic.  When the woman bled so that he knew she needed to be treated in the hospital, he called an ambulance and went with her one block to the hospital.  Since he had no admitting privileges, another physician completed the procedure safely, but then they arrested him.  I asked him why he performed the abortion, since everyone knows that the authorities are just waiting for a doctor to have a problem when they go past the 22 or 23 week stage.  He told me that his patient was a mother of three children who separated from her husband due to his drinking and his abusiveness.  They were separated for a few months when she met another man.  They were planning to live together when she got pregnant.  At that very time, her husband begged her to take him back.  Her children begged her to take him back.  My doctor friend said that her husband was basically a good man; he had talked to someone in their church, he had stopped drinking and really wanted to get the family back together.  She decided to have an abortion, because she knew he would not accept another man's child.

Very young women often have no information about fetal development and they are shocked to find out what a narrow window of opportunity they had to decide whether to keep the pregnancy or have an abortion.  Some women of any age are preoccupied and distracted and do not realize that so much time has passed.


Very young women who have no sex education or who live in a sheltered environment sometimes do not realize that abortion is a safe and simple procedure that is widely available in urban areas.  Their information about pregnancy and childbirth may come from novels and television, not the most reliable sources of information.


A very small number of women find out late in the pregnancy that their fetus is deformed or severely compromised and cannot survive after birth except in a vegetative state, if at all.  These abortions are usually sad events, because the parents were looking forward to having a healthy child.  Unfortunately, in 2007, the Supreme Court, in Gonzalez v. Carhart, took aim at this small group of women, and prohibited a type of procedure in which the fetus is killed before the procedure starts so that the skull can be collapsed in order to extract the intact body relatively painlessly.

Dawn's story

I got pregnant in the summer of 2008. My husband and I were thrilled. We had been trying for about 6 months and it finally happened. At 11 weeks of gestation we found out that the fetus had anencephaly. We were devastated. This was a very wanted child. We terminated the pregnancy two days later in a hospital. My OB performed the D&C. The doctor considered this a "condition not compatible with life." Unbeknown to me, my insurance carrier later refused to cover the procedure. I have come to find out that the insurance carrier had no choice in covering the procedure. Federal law prohibits them from covering the procedure. I am a federal government employee and in 1995 a provision was slipped into an appropriations bill stating that insurance carriers for plans offered to federal government employees are prohibited from paying for abortion services unless the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape, incest, or threatens the life of the woman. I received a letter from the insurance carrier from my appeal of the initial denial. The letter stated that the anencephaly did not threaten my ability to carry to term so the denial of benefits was correct. It appears that this carrier was bound by federal law. If I were covered by this carrier under a non-federal plan, I would have been covered for a therapeutic abortion. I resent that my healthcare and the healthcare of all female federal employees is compromised by this law. I have worked for pro-choice causes for the better part of my life doing a variety of volunteer activities as well as donating money. I support choice in all circumstances.

OTHER. 11%

This category contains a hodgepodge of reasons that are often tragic, and even the most hard-hearted and judgmental person has to acknowledge that abortion is a reasonable answer under these circumstances.  It includes rape and incest.  Often the victims are still children, only 11 or 12 years old.

Sometimes, women have a complex tangle of health problems and social problems that underlie their decision to have an abortion, even at a late stage.  In Glamour magazine, the woman tells her story.  Click here

Sometimes, the story of how the woman came to seek an abortion is bizarre but true.  The movie, Quinceanera, portrays how a medically rare but physiologically possible circumstance resulted in an unwanted and unexpected pregnancy in a woman who had never had sexual intercourse.