Before Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio made headlines for passing extreme near-total abortion bans, Arkansas and North Dakota did the same years prior.
Advocacy groups immediately sued when Arkansas and North Dakota passed so-called heartbeat laws in 2013. By the end of the years-long legal battles, both states spent thousands of dollars defending these bans after losing in federal courts. Altogether, officials told ThinkProgress the states spent about $669,000.
Arkansas spent roughly $98,119 defending its abortion ban. To put that in perspective, that money could pay for at least 1,635 naloxone rescue kits; about 17 vaginal deliveries; or one full-year of Medicaid insurance for approximately 14 people.
North Dakota spent roughly $570,948 defending its ban. To put that in perspective, that money could pay for at least 9,015 naloxone rescue kits; about 83 vaginal deliveries; or one full-year of Medicaid insurance for approximately 43 people.
A similar legal fight began elsewhere in the country this year. Groups have filed lawsuits against near-total abortion bans in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio. Already, a federal judge issued a strongly worded decision, temporarily blocking Mississippi’s ban.
“Here we go again,” U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves wrote in May. “Mississippi has passed another law banning abortions prior to viability. The latest interpretation… bans abortions in Mississippi after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is as early as 6 weeks.”
The Supreme Court established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973 through Roe v. Wade, and affirmed that right in 1992, adding that a state cannot restrict abortion prior to viability in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. But in 2019, various GOP-controlled states passed laws that ban abortion prior to viability, which the medical community says is roughly around 24 weeks gestation.
Rejecting Supreme Court precedents, there was a surge this year in so-called heartbeat bills. These bills aren’t rooted in fetal development or science, which is why the largest physician group dedicated to reproductive health advised against using the word “heartbeat” to describe these bans. These bans are also unpopular, particularly when the public learns that they outlaw abortion before many women or gender minorities know they are pregnant, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Conservative lawmakers believe the Supreme Court will overturn abortion precedents if it ends up considering a lawsuit against a near-total abortion ban, thanks to President Donald Trump’s appointment of two justices that have moved the court further right. But despite ample opportunity to take up a major abortion rights case, the Roberts Court ended its term in late June without any such case on its docket.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who support abortion rights are concerned that their colleagues are foolishly spending taxpayer dollars.
“We will probably spend more money on legal fees on this particular case than it takes for us to be able to bring healthy babies into the world,” said Alabama State Sen. Bobby Singleton (D) when the legislature passed a near-total abortion ban in May. “But we’re willing to do legislation for grandstanding, versus the ability to look at the human factor and allow a woman to have her own choice.”
Lawmakers who oppose abortion tend to believe the legal fees are worth it if it means saving potential lives. But not everyone in the movement agrees with this. Louisiana lawmakers amended the state’s near-total abortion bill to allow it to only take effect if the Mississippi law prevails in court, deciding that the state should avoid a long and costly legal process.
Historically, many within the anti-abortion movement were against pursuing “heartbeat” bills because they assumed the Supreme Court would use lawsuits against these bans to strengthen Roe; they believed attention and resources were better spent on laws that incrementally chip away at access. But in March 2013, Arkansas became the first state to pass such a bill, closely followed by North Dakota. These laws were immediately challenged and permanently blocked, with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming lower courts’ decisions and the Supreme Court declining to review the cases.
“That was always one of our concerns — that it was going to cost an unnecessary amount of money to state what we already knew, which is the law is unconstitutional,” said Georgia State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick (D), who voted against the near-total abortion ban in March and authored a vasectomy ban in response.
“In a state with the number one rate of infant and maternal mortality, it makes no sense to spend that money on legal fees when obviously our priorities should be on funding ways to stop the deaths of women, particularly women of color here in the state,” she told ThinkProgress. “We are focusing on embryos who are not born and not focusing on actual living and breathing human beings.”
ThinkProgress reached out to Georgia State Sen. Renee Unterman (R), who shepherded the state’s six-week ban through the legislature, but she did not immediately respond to the request for comment. Unterman is now running for Congress.