Government-Mandated Delays Before Abortion

Document Date: January 15, 2003

Last updated: Jan. 2003

Government-Mandated Delays Before Abortion

Around the country, states have passed laws that force women to delay their abortions for a specified period of time, generally at least 24 hours, after obtaining state-mandated information designed to persuade them not to have an abortion. In a number of states, the laws require women to make two trips to the clinic: Women must first make a separate trip to the clinic for the sole purpose of receiving anti-choice information and then wait at least 24 hours before returning to the clinic for their abortion.

Government-mandated delays serve no purpose other than to make obtaining an abortion more difficult, dangerous, and expensive for the women who are least able to bear the burden of an unwanted pregnancy. The harm of such restrictions is felt most by those who have the fewest resources – poor women, minors, rural women, working women without insurance or sick leave, and battered women.

Eighteen states currently have laws that force women to delay their abortions unnecessarily: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In a number of other states, mandatory-delay laws have been enacted but are enjoined or otherwise unenforced.

Mandated Delays Prevent Women From Obtaining Abortions

Government-mandated delays prevent women from obtaining needed abortions. Research, including a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that requiring women to make a separate trip to the clinic to receive the state-mandated information prevents between 10 and 13 percent of women from getting the abortions they seek.

For these women, making the initial trip to an abortion provider is incredibly difficult; making a second trip is impossible. Eighty-six percent of counties in the United States have no doctors trained, qualified, and willing to perform abortions. For instance, in North and South Dakota there is just one doctor in each state who provides abortions. And throughout the country, many of the clinics that do offer abortions only do so once or twice a week because of the scarcity of doctors. Given these realities, many women – particularly those who live in rural areas where abortion providers are few and far between – must travel hundreds of miles to reach the nearest clinic.

Because the cost of an abortion rises dramatically as pregnancy advances, government-mandated delays put abortion out of reach for many women. Whereas first-trimester abortions obtained from a nonhospital provider usually cost between $350 and $500, a second-trimester abortion at a clinic can cost $1,000 or more. And most clinics do not perform second-trimester abortions at all. Women who need second-trimester abortions either must take on the burden of traveling, often out of state, to a clinic that provides second-trimester abortions or must resort to a hospital. But the number of hospitals providing abortions has plummeted in the last decade, because of fear of harassment and mergers between formerly secular hospitals and religiously affiliated hospitals that prevent the newly merged entity from providing abortions. If a woman does find a hospital that provides second-trimester abortions, it will generally cost thousands of dollars, a cost that many women cannot afford.

In addition to the increased cost of the procedure, forcing women to make two trips to the clinic results in added costs. Women must arrange to take extra time off from work, potentially jeopardizing jobs they cannot afford to lose; find additional child care; and scrape together money for the travel and lodging costs generated by the mandatory delay. Together with the cost of the abortion itself, these costs can work to prevent women from obtaining the abortions they seek.

Because of the obstacles erected by government-mandated delays, women who would have had abortions are forced to continue their pregnancies. Forced motherhood has drastic consequences for women’s lives, particularly the lives of low-income women who are already struggling to provide for their families, battered women, and for young women eager to complete their education.

Mandated Delays Increase Medical Risks

Many of the women who do manage to overcome the obstacles imposed by mandatory-delay laws are forced to seek later abortions. For example, after a law requiring women to make two trips to the clinic took effect in Mississippi, the proportion of abortions performed after the first trimester increased by 40 percent. Pushing an abortion into the second trimester makes what would have been a routine procedure more complicated and risky. As the American Medical Association in its report on abortion states, “”Mandatory waiting periods [and other barriers] have the potential to threaten the safety of induced abortion. [They] increase[ ] the gestational age at which the induced pregnancy termination occurs, thereby also increasing the risk associated with the procedure.””

Minors Are Especially Hurt by Mandatory Delays

Teenagers must already overcome formidable barriers to exercise their right to choose abortion; mandatory-delay laws create yet another obstacle. For many reasons, young women tend to have abortions later than adult women do. Many teenagers have irregular menstrual cycles and take longer to recognize the signs of pregnancy. Pregnant teenagers often experience denial, shame, and fear, and may delay seeking the help they need. Minors also may have difficulty raising the money for an abortion (especially a second-trimester abortion), leaving school and/or jobs, and finding transportation to the clinic. Young women in a majority of states must also fulfill laws mandating that either they involve their parents in their abortion decision or they go to court and seek a judicial waiver of this requirement. These parental involvement laws already delay teens’ abortions. Any additional loss of time caused by government-mandated delays can make an abortion unobtainable.

Mandated Delays Demean Women

Statutes mandating delays are generally coupled with biased counseling laws (often misleadingly called “”Women’s Right to Know”” laws) that force doctors to provide every woman with information that is intended to discourage them from having an abortion. The mandatory delay ostensibly exists so that a woman has time to “”think over”” this information. Other medical procedures, even much more dangerous and complicated surgeries, do not have legally required waiting periods. Mandating delays for abortion implies that women who seek abortions do so without adequate reflection and are incapable of making reasoned, moral decisions regarding their health and future. In reality, almost all women, by the time they arrive at a clinic, are very clear about their reasons for wanting an abortion. A built-in delay already exists between the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant and the time she enters a clinic, during which period a woman has ample time to think over her decision. In addition, clinics already routinely provide counseling and refer uncertain or ambivalent patients for further counseling. For some, the mandated delay is more than insulting. It is cruel to tell a woman ending a pregnancy because her fetus has a condition incompatible with life or a woman who has become pregnant through rape or incest that she must wait at least 24 hours to reconsider her decision.

Mandated Delays Subject Women to Clinic Violence and Harassment

Many clinics are routinely picketed by anti-choice protesters. Women who must make two visits to a clinic because of mandatory delays must subject themselves twice to the trauma of harassment. Anti-choice protesters have adopted tactics to discourage women from returning to a clinic. Some trace the identity of clinic patients through their license plates and make threatening phone calls to them or their families during the waiting period. Some women are so disturbed by the harassment encountered on an initial visit that they put off their second visit – if they return to the clinic at all. Subjecting women to clinic harassment even once is traumatic; forcing them to experience it twice is both malicious and dangerous to a woman’s health.