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The New Anti-Choice Legislation To Watch: ‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Bills Banning Nearly All Abortions

By Tara Culp-Ressler on January 31, 2013 at 9:00 am

"The New Anti-Choice Legislation To Watch: ‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Bills Banning Nearly All Abortions"

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2011 and 2012 were both record-breaking years for new abortion restrictions, and abortion opponents are aren’t showing signs of letting up this year. The “personhood” movement to endow zygotes with the full rights of U.S. citizens, effectively outlawing all abortions and even some forms of contraception, has largely been a failure — but that doesn’t mean anti-choice lawmakers are giving up their quest to redefine the medical terms of pregnancy. The push for “fetal heartbeat” bans is the next anti-choice movement to watch.

Fetal heartbeat measures seek to outlaw abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected — which can occur as early as six weeks, before many women even know they’re pregnant — in direct contradiction to Roe v. Wade, which guarantees women’s right to an abortion until the point of viability at about 23 or 24 weeks of pregnancy. Despite the fact that heartbeat bills are much more extreme than the 20-week abortion bans that are already floundering in court for running afoul of Roe v. Wade, anti-choice lawmakers in at least five states are flirting with this type of legislation:

– OHIO: Anti-choice lawmakers in Ohio first advanced a heartbeat bill in 2011. After the measure was stalled in the state senate for over a year, abortion opponents pressured the legislature to take up the issue again during their lame duck session after the 2012 elections. But ultimately, the bill didn’t come up for a vote because the state Senate leader, Tom Niehaus (R-OH), acknowledged it was too controversial even among abortion opponents. Niehaus said he wanted to wait until lawmakers anti-choice community reached consensus on the measure — which means it could be back on the agenda sometime this year.

– MISSISSIPPI: About a week into the new year, GOP lawmakers in Mississippi filed a fetal heartbeat bill virtually identical to the one that failed to make it out of committee during the state’s last legislative session. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has already made it clear that he would sign such a bill if it ever reaches his desk. At a private anti-abortion event at the beginning of January, the governor confirmed that he supports banning abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. “It would tell that mother, ‘Your child has a heartbeat,’” Bryant said.

– WYOMING: About two weeks ago, state Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R) introduced a measure to supersede the medical definition of viability. Current state law says abortions are prohibited after a fetus has “reached viability,” and Kroeker sought to replace those words with “a detectable fetal heartbeat.” The Republican lawmaker said the idea for his heartbeat bill just came to him one day because “it became clear that if a baby had a heartbeat, that seemed simple to me that it’s wrong to kill it.” On Monday, a House panel struck down Kroeker’s bill because it was too medically vague. But if Ohio and Mississippi are any indication, this likely won’t be the last time that fetal heartbeat legislation shows up in Wyoming.

– ARKANSAS: Republicans in Arkansas also hopped on the fetal heartbeat train this week, but they went a step further — state Sen. Jason Rapert’s (R) proposed heartbeat bill would prosecute the doctors who perform abortions after the arbitrary cut-off with a Class D felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. And thanks to the strong Republican majorities in Arkansas’ legislature, this piece of legislation has a good chance of advancing. It easily passed out of committee on Wednesday and is now headed to the state Senate, where 19 of the chamber’s total 35 members have already signed onto it as co-sponsors.

– NORTH DAKOTA: Like Arkansas, the anti-choice politicians in North Dakota want to prosecute the doctors who perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — and their heartbeat ban was part of the “flurry” of anti-abortion bills that lawmakers rushed to introduce around last week’s Roe v. Wade anniversary. A House committee is currently considering the measure, along with an even more radical “personhood” proposal. North Dakota has already imposed some the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the nation, and women’s health advocates in the state warn that the passage of these new bills “would be tantamount to banning abortion” altogether.

Three of the states on this list — Mississippi, Arkansas, and North Dakota — only have a single surgical abortion clinic left in the entire state, which means women already have to overcome significant geographic barriers to obtain an abortion. If women’s window to access legal reproductive services is narrowed by about 17 weeks, as lawmakers attempt to move the cut-off back from 23 weeks of pregnancy to just 6 weeks, many women may not have enough time to make the trip.

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