On Wednesday, a House subcommittee held a hearing on H.R. 490, a bill that would criminalize abortion at just six weeks — a cutoff earlier than when many people first realize they’re pregnant. And as usual, during the hearing, people who would be affected by this bill were missing from the conversation.
During the hearing, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) showed the recording of a sonogram and even narrated at times. King said things like, “I wonder if Lincoln is going to move his arm and show how active he can be” and “I’m partial to Lincoln. I like that name. That says a lot about freedom and emancipation… It’s time to emancipate every little unborn baby.”
Three out of the four people who served as witnesses at the hearing were in favor of the bill and appeared to be completely unsympathetic to the people with uteri who, under the proposed bill, would be forced to carry their pregnancies to term with very few exceptions. Dr. Kathi Aultman, an associate scholar for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion group, who once performed abortions, called herself a “mass murderer” and said women simply wanted “convenience” when they sought out abortions. But Aultman was one of the few pro-life participants at the hearing who at least acknowledged women existed at all. King asked those at the hearing to focus on the sonogram from a wanted pregnancy — shifting focus away from women and other people who can get pregnant, their health, and their quality of life.
House Republicans introduced H.R. 490, the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017, in January. Under the proposed bill, abortion would be banned in “cases where a fetal heartbeat is detectable.” It would be illegal to perform an abortion before telling the pregnant person the results of whether the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. People who perform abortions could be fined or face up to five years in prison or both. Although people with life-threatening physical conditions or illnesses are exempt, people who, for example, have the emotional or psychological equivalent, such as suicidal thoughts, are not. There is no exception for rape or incest, a detail neither anti-abortion witnesses nor House Republicans were willing to acknowledge at the hearing.
Last month, the House passed a 20-week abortion ban, which is also blatantly unconstitutional, but the bill is unlikely to make it through the Senate. This six-week abortion ban will likely face the same fate, but it does show how laser-focused Republicans are on chipping away at reproductive rights and overturning Roe v. Wade. In January, Rep. King told reporters that he hopes this legislation would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not only are these laws unfair to people with uteri in general, but they are particularly burdensome to low-income people and people of color seeking their constitutional right to an abortion. A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that due to state laws restricting abortion based on gestational age and newer laws with even stricter limits, the incidence of people with uteri being denied abortions will likely increase, and this disproportionately affect young and low-income people who can get pregnant. It found that adolescents and people who took longer to recognize they were pregnant were more likely to delay care, with the most common reason being the need to raise money to travel for the procedure and the costs of the procedure. Dr. Diana Greene Foster, director of research at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, told ThinkProgress that young women are less likely to realize they’re pregnant and that not having pregnancy symptoms is a major cause of delay in getting an abortion.
One of the few witnesses at the hearing on Wednesday who was willing to acknowledge people with uteri and their health was Priscilla Smith, a senior fellow at Yale School of Law, who noted that many women don’t know they are pregnant until after six weeks into their pregnancy. Smith said she did not become sick until much later in her own pregnancy.
“What has been discussed less is the impact on women of denying them control when and in what circumstances they decide to bring a child into the world,” she said. “Women care enormously not only over whether to become a mother but also about what kind of mother they could be and most women feel an enormous responsibility for ensuring any child they do have will be raised in the best circumstances possible. Perhaps you’re not all aware that 60 percent of women obtaining abortions are already caring for at least one child.”
Dr. Daniel Grossman, a clinic and public health researcher on abortion and contraception, made a series of tweets in response to the hearing, in which he explained why a six-week ban would be harmful to people’s reproductive rights and deny many people with uteri the right to an abortion.
“Cardiac activity in a normal pregnancy is usually seen by 6 weeks, but we often can’t do an abortion when patients present earlier,” Dr. Grossman tweeted. “Before 6 weeks, it can be hard to tell if a patient has a complication, like an ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy developing outside the uterus).”
This means the patient would have to have vaginal ultrasound, where cardiac activity can be detected earlier than through an abdominal ultrasound, but the problem is that a vaginal ultrasound is invasive and not medically necessary, he explained.
“This bill would keep me from caring for patients experiencing ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages. I couldn’t do my job as a doctor,” Dr. Grossman tweeted.
Regardless of whether or not such a bill on gestational limits could pass Congress, it’s clear that state lawmakers will continue to push legislation with strict gestational limits on abortion. Over twenty states have already enacted 20-week bans, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, although bans in two states, Arizona and Idaho, have been permanently blocked by a court order and are not in effect.