Washington DC: Reproductive Care and Abortion in the United States Capital

Since last June when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down the Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision regarding abortion, we have been exploring issues of abortion and reproductive care state-by-state. The Dobbs case concerned Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act, written to prohibit all abortions subsequent to 15 weeks gestation, with very few exceptions. Along with upholding the Mississippi law with a 6-3 majority, the SCOTUS used the case to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, with a 5-4 majority. The United States is thus now a patchwork of very different laws when it comes to reproduction and abortion in particular, and pregnancy care itself is suffering in some states. Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban that caused the overturning of Roe did not even go into effect, because the state already had a trigger law that took precedence, banning abortion throughout pregnancy, rather than just beyond 15 weeks.

Other US states, such as Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, and Missouri, also are extremely hostile to the right to choose, while various pro-choice states, such as New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington are trying to help out-of-state abortion seekers. In many pro-choice states, such as New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, North Carolina, the right to choose is protected up to the point of fetal viability (24-26 weeks gestation) or close to that point, or beyond it. In North Carolina, for instance, allows abortion up to 20 weeks and six days, and some states, such as Oregon and New Jersey, have no time limit. There also are in between states, such as Florida, where you can have an abortion up through the 15th week, but even that right stands on shaky ground that depends a lot on outcomes of the November election (which may have taken place by the time that this post publishes). Interestingly, there are some states in which abortion rights are being upheld, despite strong majorities of anti-choice Republican politicians in the state legislatures and governors, because of either the state constitution or the court system. Such states include Kansas, Alaska, Montana, and Ohio. In Kansas, despite its strong Republican leanings and active anti-abortion politicians and organizations, the people out and voted strongly on a ballot measure in favor of keeping a guarantee of the right to choose in the Kansas state Constitution.

Today, we are considering the District of Columbia, Washington DC, the nation’s capital. As with New Jersey and Oregon, the District of Columbia allows abortion throughout the duration of pregnancy. Technically, this means that you could undergo an abortion even after the point of fetal viability, a point which the fetal lungs are mature enough to support most neonates outside of the womb. In practice, however, the overwhelming majority of elective abortions are carried out during the first trimester, and usually even during the first 9 weeks, meaning 9 weeks counting from the first day of bleeding of the last menstrual period. There are extreme situations, however, apart from when the mother’s life or health is in danger. Generally, women who choose late term abortions do so because prenatal testing revealed some very severe problem with the fetus, indicating that the child will be very sick and will suffer and have a very short life.

Here on The Pulse, another abortion issue that we have been reporting to you is the issue of parental involvement for minors. Some states require notification of a parent or another adult relative who lives with you. Others require both notification and consent from such an adult. In Washington DC, however, no parental participation is required. A pregnant minor can decide to get an abortion all on her own. This also means that minors in the nearby states of Maryland and Virginia, where parental (or sometimes grandparent) participation is needed might want to travel to the District, if she cannot involve her parents and cannot obtain a judicial bypass. In practice, this is a very tiny number of young women, since most parents are supportive of their daughters’ right to choose and most judges do grant judicial bypass.

Putting all of this together pregnancy, anybody who is pregnant can have a procedural abortion at any point in the District of Columbia. Additionally, you can have a medication abortion up to 77 days (11 weeks) gestation.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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