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‘Heartbeat’ bills in the U.S. are just another way to oppress women

By Yair Oded

May 17, 2019

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A domestic war appears to be brewing in the United States over a highly sensitive issue: abortion. While abortion has long been a controversial topic in America, it was, at least temporarily, laid to rest following the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which granted women across the United States the right to abort their pregnancy up until the point of fetal viability, which usually occurs after 24 or 25 weeks. Yet as conservative sentiments have risen in the U.S., a string of laws emerged in various states that seek to prohibit abortion from the moment a heartbeat is detected.

The most recent one, which passed on Wednesday in Alabama, places the harshest restrictions and effectively prohibits and criminalises all cases of abortion in the state. As the turmoil surrounding these laws mounts, experts seek to puncture holes in their scientific soundness, particularly as far as their ‘heartbeat’ arguments are concerned.

The controversial Alabama law—which outlaws abortion even in cases or rape and incest and stipulates that doctors who perform it could face up to 99 years in prison—is merely a hyped-up version of other anti-abortion laws instituted by six other states and is in the pipeline in fourteen others. All such laws mark the point of ‘heartbeat detection’ as an indication of fetal viability of an “unborn human individual.” This language though is highly misleading, particularly the usage of the terms ‘human individual’ and ‘viability’.

At the point when fetal viability is first detected, roughly six weeks into the pregnancy, the ‘unborn individual’ is on average a three-to-four millimetre concentration of cells, making it even more understandable why many question the validity of referring to this creature as a human being.

Yet particularly problematic is the law’s usage of the term heartbeat, which at the six-week mark-up constitutes more of a basic electrical activity of cell clusters. “At six weeks, the embryo is forming what will eventually develop into mature systems. There’s an immature neurological system, and there’s a very immature cardiovascular system,” Jennifer Kerns, an ob-gyn at UC San Francisco tells WIRED. Kerns goes on to state that the rhythm referred to by the heartbeat bills is in fact “a group of cells with electrical activity. That’s what the heartbeat is at that stage of gestation.” Adding that “We are in no way talking about any kind of cardiovascular system.”  

Opponents of the bills highlight the countless negative ramifications they will have on women. Firstly, many women are still unaware of their pregnancy within the first six weeks (when a heartbeat is detected), and so female residents of states like Alabama, Ohio, and Georgia will get no chance whatsoever to abort their pregnancy. And the linguistic ambiguity of some of the laws would criminalise the termination of pregnancies that pose a health-risks to the mothers once a heartbeat is detected, and even go so far as prosecute mothers who experienced a miscarriage. The heartbeat laws are also predicted to disproportionately affect women of low-income backgrounds, as they are the least likely to be able to afford to travel and abort their pregnancy outside of the state.  

Let us make one thing crystal clear: this is not a righteous crusade to protect innocent lives by benevolent lawmakers. This is a calculated and deliberate attack on women—on their right to sexual and personal independence. It is an aggressive rebellion launched by men and women who dread the prospect of female liberation, agency, and advancement. It is evident, for instance, in the countless other bills that surface alongside the heartbeat laws that attempt to cripple women, such as the one in Ohio seeking to ban access to birth control pills and IUDs.

In 2019 alone, over 300 anti-abortion bills were drafted across the United States. While some have already been challenged in court—as will the ones currently being passed—by organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood, it is unclear what their fate will be. Given the Supreme Court’s increasingly conservative make-up, it is certainly possible that while deliberating on one of those bills its majority will decide to overturn its landmark 1973 decision and officially re-open the door to abortion bans.

Americans can no longer afford to view this as a ‘women’s issue’ exclusively. This is a race issue; it is a class issue; it is an LGBTQ issue; it is a human rights issue, and it warrants a collective reaction.