What Does "Partial-Birth Abortion" Even Mean?

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Near the end of last night's vice presidential debates, the conversation turned to abortion — and Mike Pence declared his disapproval of Hillary's alleged support of "partial-birth abortions." But, on top of the fact that Clinton has said no such thing, that term is much murkier than many of us realize. In fact, the phrase is actually far more political than medical.

During the debate, referring to partial-birth abortion, Pence said, "The very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their life taken from them is just anathema to me." But that's not quite what "partial-birth abortion" means...

As NPR explains, the term "partial-birth abortion" originally came about back in 1995 when the National Right to Life Committee used it to describe a then-new procedure. Since then, the procedure has been banned in the U.S. in most cases (first in 2003, and the decision was then upheld at the Supreme Court level in 2007).

However, in the medical community, this procedure goes by a few different names, including "dilation and extraction" and "D&X." Basically, it involves dilating the pregnant woman's cervix and removing the fetus intact. In addition to the relatively rare cases in which it's used for late-term abortions, doctors may also use it to remove a fetus after a late-term miscarriage. The other option for late-term abortions (generally considered to be after 24 weeks) is usually induced labor and delivery.

Today, the circumstances under which a pregnant woman can get a late-term abortion vary from state to state. But, in general, these procedures are only done in cases in which the woman's health is at risk. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the Supreme Court interprets the word "health" to include physical and mental health, and "only the physician, in the course of evaluating the specific circumstances of an individual case, can define what constitutes 'health' and when a fetus is viable."

Interestingly, while the American people in general don't support later-term abortions, public opinions seem to shift when the question of birth defects (such as those caused by the Zika virus) enters the picture.

So, where do the candidates actually stand on the issue? Based on last night's debate, it seems like Pence and Kaine agree personally in their stances on abortion. But Kaine is willing to let public policy differ from his personal opinion, whereas Pence is clearly not cool with that.

And we already know that Clinton and Trump are on totally different sides of the abortion argument: Clinton has stated that she wants abortions to be "safe and legal," and she's also shown some support for regulating late-term abortions so there are only exceptions for life and health of the mother. Trump, on the other hand, has said that he is "totally against abortion," even suggesting that abortion providers should be punished.

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