Is U.S. nearly alone in allowing late-term abortions? Not exactly.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas (right) joined Mitch McConnell of Ky., the Senate majority leader, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., after mostly Democrats blocked legislation to prohibit most late-term abortions (AP photo/Jacquelyn Martin).
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas (right) joined Mitch McConnell of Ky., the Senate majority leader, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., after mostly Democrats blocked legislation to prohibit most late-term abortions (AP photo/Jacquelyn Martin).

John Cornyn of Texas took to the Senate floor in late September with a dramatic claim: "The United States is only one of seven nations in the world that allows late-term abortions after a baby in utero is a viable human being. We are right there alongside the great defenders of human rights such as China, North Korea and Vietnam."

That set the Truth-O-Meter in motion.

But then, with a nudge from Cornyn’s office, we recognized Cornyn had aired a different, limited version of his claim in debate Sept. 21.

That day, in fact, the 1-in-7 figure was lofted by 14 Republicans prior to mostly Democrats voting to keep the Senate from advancing a proposal (like laws in states including Texas) to bar elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Depending on each senator's wording, the 1-in-7 figure was sometimes solid, other times not.

Getting it wrong

Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, were among a few senators who said the U.S. was among seven nations to even allow abortions after five months of pregnancy.

That’s an incomplete assessment in that numerous nations allow an abortion in special cases including to preserve the health and life of the mother. Cornyn’s Sept. 29 claim likely was weakened by the same overstatement.

In 2013, PolitiFact in Washington, D.C. and PolitiFact Texas rated Half True separate claims that only four countries allowed abortions after five months of pregnancy. Six nations--China, North Korea, Canada, the U.S., Singapore and the Netherlands--actually did so. In addition, far more countries permit abortions in certain circumstances in which the pregnancy would damage the woman’s well-being, be it physical, mental or economic.

Which countries?

Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie told us by email the Texan had drawn his 1-in-7 analysis from a February 2014 report by the Charlotte Lozier Institute stating the U.S. ranks among seven countries that permit elective abortion past 20 weeks of gestation or that length of time after conception or implantation. The report said the countries are:

  • Canada (no restriction in law)

  • China (no restriction in law)

  • Netherlands (24 weeks)

  • North Korea (no restriction in law)

  • Singapore (24 weeks)

  • United States (viability)

  • Vietnam (no restriction in law)

We reached out to the institute, which is the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization dedicated to ending abortion, seeking a breakdown of how countries were grouped. By email, the institute’s president, Chuck Donovan, pointed out a chart listing abortion laws around the world built by Sam Rowlands of the International Federation of Professional Abortion and Contraception Associates. Donovan said the institute, though, checked each law via a Harvard University database, among its sources.

Abortions not entirely barred after five months

Separately, we asked the Center for Reproductive Rights, which focuses on using the law "to advance reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right that all governments are legally obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill," if it had data relevant to Cornyn’s statement.

By phone, Katy Mayall, a center expert on abortion laws around the globe, said that if anyone was suggesting late abortions don’t occur outside the seven countries, that’s not so. The center has an interactive map indicating that many countries, mostly in the northern hemisphere, permit abortions without restriction as to reason. Then again, a note on a breakout map for the countries says that unless otherwise indicated, each one has a legal gestational limit for elective abortions of 12 weeks.

We’d written before that dozens of countries permit abortions after 20 weeks for different reasons. Common exceptions to the gestational period requirement mean women may be able to get therapeutic abortions based on physical health, mental health or socioeconomic status.

As of 2013, 37 countries that routinely outlawed abortion, including Paraguay, Afghanistan and Uganda, made clear exceptions to save mothers. Another 59 nations generally allowed an abortion to preserve a pregnant woman’s physical health on a broader scale, with Israel, New Zealand and others also accepting mental health reasons as valid exceptions. India and Japan belonged among 13 countries granting even wider exceptions including access to the procedure for socioeconomic reasons based on factors like age of the woman or very low income.

In practice, Mayall told us, gestational limits don’t mean a woman can’t obtain an abortion after the specified period. She said that in dozens of countries, accepted reasons for an abortion at any time before viability include protection of the life or health of the woman, sometimes including mental health, and also in cases of severe fetal impairment. Sweden, for example, has a law limiting abortions after 18 weeks of gestation, Mayall said. In practice, she said, women still may access abortions because its exceptions are interpreted broadly.

By email, Donovan agreed abortions occur past the gestational periods limiting elective abortions. "The gestational limit sets the threshold for elective abortion, and beyond this gestational limit there are sometimes (not always) extended access to abortion for rape/incest/fetal abnormality etc.," Donovan wrote. "Almost universally there is access to abortion past any gestational limit to save the life of the mother. Each country differs in what justifications are allowed to extend abortion access past 12, 14, 16 weeks etc.," he said.

Neither the center nor the institute had data demonstrating the ease or difficulty, country by country, that abortions are obtained once a statutory gestational limit has lapsed.

Closer to right

Let’s circle back to the Sept. 21 debate.

Cornyn said then: "As a matter of fact, the United States is just one of seven countries worldwide that permit access to an elective abortion after 5 months of gestation, and we are in some pretty tough company. Right now we are in company with China, Vietnam, and North Korea."

Like Cornyn, several senators--including Orrin Hatch of Utah--said that after 20 weeks of pregnancy, seven nations bar "elective" abortions--or abortions "on demand," Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Grassley of Iowa put it.

That’s right, though maybe it bears repeating that abortions are still obtainable in many countries after statutory limits have elapsed--provided there is a medical reason.

That said, PolitiFact Virginia in May rated True a claim that the U.S. is "one of only seven nations that allows elective abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization." Its story said the word "elective" distinguished the statement from the claims previously taken up by PolitiFact researchers.

It's a PolitiFact principle: Words matter.