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A closer look at abortion and Florida's proposed law

Gov. Charlie Crist soon will have to decide whether to veto House Bill 1143, which requires a woman seeking an abortion in early pregnancy to view an ultrasound and hear a description of the embryo. The measure, pushed through in the final hours of the legislative session, also would make women pay for their ultrasound, which could add $100 to $300 to the $400 typically paid in the United States for a first-trimester abortion. Florida already mandates an ultrasound for later abortions. The legislation doesn't spell out exactly how doctors would have to treat or talk to patients. During the first trimester, the clearest view of an embryo often requires ultrasound by a vaginal probe, as opposed to the abdominal exam used later in pregnancy. Under the bill, women would have the right to decline to view the images, although they would have to sign a form acknowledging they did so. To get an idea of what's at stake, consider these ultrasound images from a first-trimester pregnancy, and general descriptions of fetal development at these stages:

Week 6 embryo

(Gestational age is measured in the weeks since a woman's last menstrual period, so this image is actually four weeks since conception.)

By week six, the embryo could measure around 1/2-inch. The head, legs, brain and spinal cord are beginning to form. Cardiac activity could be tracked on an ultrasound.

Week 9 embryo

By week nine, the embryo could measure around 1 inch. The body is growing. Facial features are beginning to develop, along with all major body organs and systems.

Week 12 fetus

By the end of the first trimester, the fetus could measure about 3 inches, approximate size at left. Fingers and toes are growing. Bones and muscles are beginning to grow.

Sources: American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and information on fetal development produced in a partnership between parents.com and the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine.

About these images: These ultrasounds were provided to the Times by an expectant mother who had early ultrasounds to monitor her high-risk pregnancy.

Facts and figures about abortion

Abortion timing

More than 90 percent of the 47,000 abortions reported in Florida in the first half of 2008 occurred during the first trimester, or a gestational age of 12 weeks or less.

National health statistics show that more than 60 percent of abortions take place at or before eight weeks gestation.

The earliest a fetus has a chance of surviving outside the mother's womb, with medical intervention, is at 23 to 24 weeks gestation.

Babies born before 37 weeks are considered preterm and have much higher risks of complication and disability.

Abortion procedures

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the type of abortion depends on a woman's choice, health and the stage of the pregnancy:

In a medical abortion, drugs are taken to end a pregnancy. At seven weeks or earlier, this commonly involves taking mifepristone (RU-486) to prevent the growth of the embryo and another drug to expel it.

Suction curettage, the most common type of abortion, can be done through the first trimester. In this procedure, a suction device is used to empty the uterus.

Later in pregnancy, abortions are rare and can occur through drug-induced labor.

Women seeking abortions

At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. At current rates, about one-third will have an abortion.

An annual survey by the nonprofit organization described U.S. abortion patients in 2008:

• More than half were in their 20s. One-fifth, the next largest group, were in their 30s.

• Sixty-one percent already had at least one child, including one-third who had two or more children.

• Forty-two percent were poor, significantly higher than in 2000.

• Eighty-five percent were unmarried. Of the women who had never married, almost half had been in a relationship for a year or longer with the man who made them pregnant.

• Black and Hispanic women were more likely to seek abortions than white women, although no racial group made up a majority.

A closer look at abortion and Florida's proposed law 05/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 11:12am]

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