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Heartbeat Bills: What Are They & How Do They Vary?

Various forms of the heartbeat bill, a bill that limits abortion, have been introduced in 13 different states this year. The House in eight of these states passed the bills. Four governors then signed them into law. The federal court has also temporarily blocked and struck down some of them. Ohio, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama are the only states that successfully signed into law heartbeat bills (most of which do not go into effect until 2020), although they are expected to face challenges going forward that may prevent them from ever going into effect.

These bills were designed with the intention of overturning Roe v. Wade. In some states, they have already been struck down. The heartbeat bills have been called unconstitutional by some. Others are even calling Roe v. Wade unconstitutional. If, or rather when, these laws are challenged, it could work its way up to the Supreme Court. In this case, the Supreme Court could review and potentially decide to overturn Roe v. Wade.

One important thing to note is that these bills refer to only women, which is why I have used “woman” for the pregnant person being discussed, but there are non-binary and non-conforming people who are capable of getting pregnant, as well. 

What do the heartbeat bills say?

The laws in Georgia and Alabama, which are considered the strictest of the four passed this year, differ substantially in several ways. Their definition of unborn children, the rights they have, and when they allow abortions all differ. Additionally, they have different rulings on who can be charged/punished for an abortion being performed and the severity of the sentence. Their exclusions to the rules also vary.

The law in Georgia goes into effect in January, 2020 and the one in Alabama goes into effect in November of 2019. Both are expected to be challenged before then. Depending on how that goes, they may or may not go into effect.

What rights does an unborn child have?

Georgia defines natural persons to include an unborn child. This means that population determinations include unborn children. Also, an unborn child “is a dependent minor for income tax purposes.” It refers to unborn children as “a class of living, distinct persons,” and gives them full legal recognition, citing Article I of the constitution of the State of Georgia: ” no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property except by due process of law.”

For some, this has raised questions about the citizenship of fetuses. There are also questions about imprisoned women who are pregnant since their fetuses are technically being denied liberty without due process of law. Some other questions that have been raised are: how could this affect both voting since fetuses are included in the population and the economy of Georgia since you can file your six-week-old fetus as a dependent? These are technicalities, but since they are not clearly addressed in the bill, they might cause some difficulties.

In the Alabama law, it is stated that they “recognize the rights of an unborn child” and consider it a person, regardless of the stage of development or viability, for homicide purposes. This basically says that abortion at any time is a homicide and that an unborn child is a person. It does not necessarily state it to have citizenships or all the same rights as a person who has been born like the Georgia law. Nothing is said about population counts or if the fetus could be filed as a dependent on your taxes.

When can you abort?

The Georgia bill states that abortion is illegal once a heartbeat is detectable. Alabama, on the other hand, has made it illegal to abort an “unborn child in utero,” regardless of the stage of development or viability.

One issue expressed about heartbeat bills is that at six weeks, the fetus does not have a heart. Cardiac motion is detectable through a transvaginal ultrasound before a heart has formed. This is due to a cardiac structure called the “fetal pole.” The Georgia bill addresses this by defining a “detectable human heartbeat” to mean embryonic or fetal cardiac activity.

The Alabama law states nothing about this. Since they are completely banning abortion, regardless of whether a heartbeat is detectable, it’s irrelevant to their bill.

What are the exclusions?

Both states allow abortion after cardiac motion is detectable only if there is a medical emergency. This includes “risk of death or substantial irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.” Diagnosis or claim of a mental or emotional condition or a woman threatening to engage in conduct that would result in her death or physical impairment is explicitly stated as to not count as a medical emergency. In Alabama, an abortion can be performed if a psychiatrist diagnoses a woman with a mental illness and has good reason to believe she will harm herself. Additionally, neither state considers removing an unborn child whose death was caused by spontaneous abortion, or removing an ectopic pregnancy, to be an abortion.

Both bills state that an abortion can only be performed by a licensed physician. This is the part of the Georgia bill that has raised questions. Could a woman be charged for aborting on her own? The bill does not state if this would or would not be possible. In contrast, the Alabama bill states that a woman will not be prosecuted if she aborts. The Georgia law does, however, state that if a woman seeks an abortion, believing that it is the only way to prevent a medical emergency, it defeats the legal consequences she would face for her “otherwise unlawful conduct,” IF proven.

The Georgia law has a rape and incest exclusion if the pregnancy is at 20 weeks or less. Even then, only if an official police report has been filed. Alabama makes absolutely no mention of this.

What else should I know about the heartbeat bills?

The bills in Georgia and Alabama differ in one more way. Georgia makes it possible for men to be required to pay child support during pregnancy. This can include “direct medical and pregnancy-related expenses” of the woman.

What arguments are people using against the heartbeat bills?

One argument is that most women do not even know that they are pregnant at six weeks. This closes the window for when they could have gotten an abortion, making it an almost ban.

Many have called this an attack on women’s rights, and say that a woman’s life should be more important than a fetus’. This is an important argument to note in states like Georgia, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation. It also already has a lack of obstetricians and gynecologists. Laws like this are unlikely to attract more practicing physicians.

Another argument is that this will disproportionately affect marginalized and low-income women. These women don’t have as much knowledge about (another failing of our system) or access to birth control. They are also very unlikely to know that they’re pregnant before six weeks. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 49% of women who get an abortion are below the poverty line.

Many are also using the argument that men should not be making decisions for women. It is important to note who was actually involved in passing this law. 22 male senators did vote to pass the bill. However, Janet Porter, a woman, helped write several of the heartbeat bills. The governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey – a woman, signed the bill into law. Men and women are responsible here.

What arguments are people using for the heartbeat bills?

One prominent argument is that if life ends when there is no longer a heartbeat, then life begins when there is a heartbeat. This, of course, does not apply to Alabama’s bill that has nothing to do with a fetal heartbeat.

Pro-life advocates consistently argue that all life is sacred. They place the life of a six-week-old fetus in the same position as that of any other living human, outside of the womb.

Some supporters of the bill argue that six weeks is, in fact, enough time to obtain an abortion. The CDC’s annual abortion report states that in 2015, 24.6% of abortions were completed at, or before, eight weeks.

What Can I Do to Support Reproductive Rights?

There are several organizations that you can donate to or volunteer with to help support reproductive rights.

The ARC Southeast, or Access Reproductive Care, accepts donations and volunteers to help Southerners access safe and affordable reproductive care.

Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates accept donations and volunteers to do things like escort patients coming to one of their clinics.

NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia is a political organization that fights for reproductive freedom, including abortion access, birth control access, and paid maternity leave, among other things. They accept donations and volunteers.

SPARK Reproductive Justice aims to “build new leadership, change culture, and advance knowledge in Georgia and the South to ensure individuals and communities have resources and power to make sustainable and liberatory decisions about our bodies, gender, sexualities, and lives.” They accept donations, volunteers, and have events you can get involved with on their website.

Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates accept donations and offer various ways to get involved with them.

The Yellowhammer fund provides funding for people seeking care at one of Alabama’s three abortion clinics. They are relatively new (2018) and as of now, only accept donations.

Here's Everything You Need to Know About Heartbeat Bills | Lots of Lora
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