By Jonah McKeown/Catholic News Agency
Coloradans are preparing for a ballot referendum that would ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy in the state. While abortion advocates argue that such abortions are “extremely rare,” statistics recorded by a longtime Colorado abortionist shed light on the late term abortions performed at one Boulder clinic.
The data reveals hundreds of late-term abortions performed over a 20-year period on babies with fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome.
Warren Hern, an abortionist who has been active in Boulder, Colorado since 1975, released a paper in 2014 which included many self-reported statistics about the abortions his clinic performed between 1992 and 2012.
The statistics show that Hern’s clinic performed hundreds of abortions between 1992-2012 on women who were at or past 24 weeks pregnant, including several performed on women between 38 and 39 weeks gestation.
Nearly 240 of those late-term abortions were performed on babies with Down syndrome.
The self-reported statistics only cover abortions Hern performed for reasons of fetal abnormality, which in some years made up just 2.5% of the thousands of abortions he performed.
Colorado remains one of the only a handful of states that does not have some legislation on late-term abortion. As a result, abortions can take place in the state up until birth.
The Boulder Abortion Clinic is one of just a handful of clinics in the U.S. that publicly accept patients seeking late-term abortions from anywhere in the world.
Colorado voters are set to decide on Proposition 115 in November, which asks voters whether to ban abortion in the state after 22 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases where a mother’s life is threatened.
A poll conducted in early October by 9 News / Colorado Politics found that among 1,021 registered likely voters, 42% of respondents said they are certain to vote yes on Prop. 115; 45% said no, while 13% are uncertain.
If the late-term abortion ban passes in November, it would mark the first time since 1967 that Colorado would impose voter-approved restrictions on abortion.
While some abortion supporters claim the phrase “late-term abortion” is “imprecise and misleading,” Hern uses the term “late abortion” throughout his paper.
Hern reports that between Jan. 4, 1992 and Oct. 31, 2012, just more than 1,000 women requested a “late abortion” for reasons of fetal disorder.
Abortion supporters frequently cite CDC data from 2016— data which excludes abortion hotspots like California, Illinois, New York state, and Washington DC— to argue that abortions after 21 weeks gestation make up only 1.2% of all abortions performed in the US and are thus “extremely rare.”
In Colorado, the percentage of abortions performed after 21 weeks is higher than the national average, at 3.3%— a figure higher than any other state in the CDC’s data except New Mexico.
The statistics do not account for the fact that women have traveled from other states to Boulder for decades to avail themselves of Hern’s late-term abortion services. At least 11% of all abortions performed in Colorado are on out-of-state residents, according to the CDC data.
Each year, about 200 to 300 babies are aborted after 21 weeks gestation in Colorado. Dilation and evacuation abortions are typically used in the second trimester of pregnancy, and result in the crushing of the head and eventual dismemberment of an unborn child.
The trend in Hern’s statistics suggest that the proportion of all patients seeking abortions because of fetal disorders increased over time from 2.5% to 30%.
Hern credited this increase to “gradual change in clinic policy to accept patients with more advanced gestations, more requests for late termination of pregnancy because of fewer options being available elsewhere, and advances in fetal diagnosis.”
“Genetic disorders”— as opposed to “structural anomalies”— were the most common disorders among the babies aborted, appearing in 40% of cases.
Of those cases, 63% of the genetic disorders were Trisomy 21, commonly known as Down syndrome. Hern reported 237 total abortions of babies with Down syndrome.
The most common “structural anomalies” reported were neural tube defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida; but some of the babies were aborted for reasons such as extra fingers or toes, cleft hands or lips, or because two twins were conjoined.
The median age of all 1,005 patients in Hern’s study was 32, and the median gestational age was 24 weeks, or five and a half months. He said many patients who request abortions after 30 weeks have had their fetus evaluated as “normal” around 18 to 20 weeks.
Patients seeking particular kinds of abortions at Hern’s clinic tended to request abortions, on average, around eight months into their pregnancies.
For example, some patients carrying twins requested an abortion for one of the twins—“selective termination”— usually because of a fetal abnormality.
Hern writes that in these cases, the abortions were generally done after 32 weeks— more than seven months— gestation to “permit optimum development and survival probability for the healthy twin.”
Patients seeking “selective termination” or “induced fetal demise”— an injection to kill the fetus before the abortion operation— tended to be in their mid-30s in age. Hern said these patients typically request abortions between 33 and 36 weeks— over eight months— gestation.
Several of his patients suffered major complications, including major unintended surgery, hemorrhage requiring transfusion, and pelvic infection, he reported.
A Nebraska couple filed a lawsuit against Hern and the Boulder Abortion Clinic in 2015, alleging that Hern left a nearly two-inch piece of a fetus’ skull inside a patient’s uterus during a late-term abortion, apparently forcing a patient to undergo a hysterectomy.
In 2016, Hern was the subject of a congressional investigation into the practices of late-term abortionists. The panel requested information on any infants who were born alive at his clinic and the babies’ records thereafter. According to the Denver Post, Hern refused to provide any of the requested documentation, calling the panel a “witchhunt.”
During May 2019, Hern argued in a New York Times op-ed that because women are more likely to die in childbirth than from complications related to an abortion, “pregnancy is dangerous; abortion can be lifesaving.”
Dr. Mary Jo O’Sullivan, a high-risk obstetrician and Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Miami, responded at the time that although any pregnancy carries some risk, it is not a “serious” threat to a woman’s health, especially in the United States where maternal deaths are still very rare, even in rural areas.
Opponents of Colorado’s late-term abortion ban, including groups like Abortion Access for All, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America have raised millions of dollars to attempt to defeat the proposition.
If the ballot measure becomes law, doctors would face a three-year license suspension for performing or attempting to perform an abortion of an unborn child beyond 22-weeks of gestation. Women would not be charged with seeking or obtaining an abortion.
The Catholic bishops of Colorado asked voters to support the ban in a June 30 letter and placed the ballot measure under the patronage of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, also known as Mother Cabrini, who aided orphans and immigrants in her time in Colorado.
In addition, the Catholic Medical Association and a group of more than 130 medical professionals and scientists in Colorado have backed Proposition 115.
Colorado was the first state in the nation to decriminalize abortion. The initial legislation, signed into law April 25, 1967, allowed abortion in certain limited cases: rape, incest, or a prediction of permanent mental or physical disability of either the child or mother. Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade declared abortion a constitutional right nationwide.
Abortion-rights groups in Colorado have touted the fact that for a time during the pandemic, many women from other states were traveling to Colorado to take advantage of the state’s permissive abortion laws.
Abortion clinics in states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, which did not introduce any pandemic-related restrictions on abortion, saw increases in patients traveling from other states, such as Texas, to undergo the procedure during spring 2020.