Republicans are set to introduce the nation’s harshest-ever federal abortion legislation next week with a bill banning the procedure as early as six weeks — before most people even know they are pregnant.
House Republicans introduced H.R. 490 — the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017 — in January. Now, the bill has a hearing date: November 1. Under the new legislation, abortion would be banned “in cases where a fetal heartbeat is detectable” or in situations where doctors intend to move forward “without determining whether the fetus has a detectable heartbeat.” It would also be illegal to perform the procedure before informing the expecting parent of the results.
Thanks to modern technology, a heartbeat can often be detected as early as six weeks. That’s before most people are even aware they’re pregnant — meaning the proposed legislation would effectively ban most abortions. Physicians found in violation of the law would be subject to a fine, up to five years in prison, or both. The bill exempts cases where the parent has a life-threatening physical condition or illness — though notably not a “psychological or emotional” equivalent.
At the time it was introduced, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), noted that the legislation directly works in opposition to national abortion protections.
“Since Roe v. Wade was unconstitutionally decided in 1973, nearly 60 million innocent babies’ lives have been ended by the abortion industry, all with a rubber stamp by the federal government,” King said in January. “If a heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected.”
“We think this bill properly applied does eliminate a large, large share of the abortions—90 percent or better—of the abortions in America,” he later told reporters.
So-called “heartbeat” bills gained traction at the state level several years ago, part of a new effort to counter federal abortion law. North Dakota and Arkansas became the first states in the country to pass heartbeat laws in 2013 (Arkansas’ law extended the period to 12 weeks, rather than six.) While federal courts struck down both laws for violating the constitution, similar efforts have cropped up across the country in their wake. Anti-choice lawmakers in Ohio advanced a bill similar to H.R. 490 in 2011, only to put the legislation on hold amid fears that it was too controversial even in conservative circles. Gov. John Kasich (R) later vetoed another bill with a similar ban attached, seemingly due to its constitutional implications.
Comparable bills have gained traction in Texas, Wyoming, and Mississippi, among other states. Heartbeat bills are a clear violation of Roe v. Wade, something that has stopped many lawmakers from greenlighting them. Along with “personhood” bills, which bestow zygotes with the rights of U.S. citizens, heartbeat bills are among the harshest type of abortion ban put forward by lawmakers. While it’s unlikely one would ever pass on a national level, abortion advocates have expressed concerned over the implications of a heartbeat bill making it to Congress.
As of next Wednesday, those fears will be realized. Reproductive justice organizations and activists have slammed H.R. 490, saying the bill is a clear effort to ban abortion and undo women’s rights.
“The GOP’s crazy obsession with banning all abortions in this country knows no end, no boundary, and no common sense,” NARAL Pro-Choice America Senior Vice President Sasha Bruce said on Thursday. “Their latest crazy, and clearly unconstitutional, idea is a ban that applies to [people] who don’t even know they’re pregnant yet, intentionally preventing them from accessing care altogether.”
Bruce added, “Americans are clear: they want their elected officials addressing the crises our country faces instead of wasting time and taxpayer dollars attempting to ban abortion. The majority of Americans stand on the side of abortion access, and seven in 10 Americans believe abortion should remain legal and accessible.”
Despite the inevitable legal hassle the bill will cause, should it gain traction, Rep. King told reporters in January that he is hopeful the legislation could eventually go to the Supreme Court. President Trump has already appointed anti-choice Justice Neil Gorsuch to the bench and could have the opportunity to appoint another justice before the end of his time in office — effectively imperiling nationwide abortion protections in the process.
“By the time we march this thing down to the Supreme Court, the faces on the bench will be different—we just don’t know how much different, but I’m optimistic,” said King.
The bill is only the latest major infringement on abortion rights in the past few weeks. House Republicans passed a 20-week abortion ban three weeks ago with support from the White House, legislation that took precedent over renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program. For several weeks, an undocumented teenager held by authorities in Texas was denied an abortion despite repeated requests for the procedure. After numerous legal appeals she was finally able to obtain an abortion on Wednesday.