This year alone, four states have introduced measures that would make the availability of abortion contingent on the detectability of a fetal heartbeat. Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Wyoming have all devised bills or revisions that would make abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat illegal. The Arkansas bill, introduced by state Senator Jason Rapert, would charge doctors performing abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat with a Class D felony, which comes with substantial fines and prison time. North Dakota’s law would charge the doctor with a Class C felony. The Mississippi bill would potentially strip a doctor of their license to practice. The text of these laws provides for many penalties, but the worst consequences are in their unwritten implications.
Fetal heartbeat can typically be detected at about six weeks, though it may be detected earlier (around five weeks) in some women. Other times, a heartbeat may not be detected until seven weeks. This arbitrary distinction makes the law inherently unequal, as not all women will show a fetal heartbeat at the same time. Rather than setting the bill at six or eight weeks or any other measurable period, the measures rely on a variable time frame depending on heartbeat detection. I imagine that this is done because most people will hear “six weeks” and know that such a thing is unreasonable and severely impedes abortion access. I’m also guessing that people who have not been pregnant or expecting don’t typically know when a heartbeat can be expected, and might assume that it is much later than six weeks.
The biggest concern here is the gradual closing of the time window for abortion access. Most people don’t even know they’re pregnant at five or six weeks. At five weeks, some women would still be waiting around for a period to show up, even though they might be carrying a fetus with a detectable heartbeat. For women with irregular periods, such a short time frame could easily slip from their grasp, and they would either have to travel out of state for a termination or have a forced birth. Not to mention that the only reliable way to detect a fetal heartbeat is a transvaginal ultrasound, so these kinds of bills would automatically allow for the special kind of assault perpetrated by a government-mandated, unwanted object being shoved into one’s vagina and wiggled around.
Most of these states have already enacted extreme anti-choice measures designed to make obtaining an abortion as difficult as possible. Most states have require waiting periods of 24 hours and thus make obtaining an abortion a two-day procedure at the minimum. Wyoming, Mississippi, and North Dakota only have one abortion clinic per state, making access difficult for anyone who doesn’t live close to a provider. Now not only would women have to find the time and money to make a trip across the state, they would only have a few weeks to do it. They would have to have the money ready for the procedure (no time for fundraising!), be able to take several days off of work, and have the means to travel. As usual, these measures unfairly target working class and impoverished women, who would not have the time, money, or luxury of taking off work to jump over these anti-choice hurdles.
These bills are nothing if not manipulative, underhanded plays on emotion. The talk of heartbeats is meant to stir emotion in us. We have romantic ideas and notions tied to the concept of heartbeats and hearts in general, and these bills are using those ties to manipulate the public into supporting these bills. And like I said above, if you took a random person off the street who has no experience with pregnancy or reproductive health or activism, they might not think that something could have a heartbeat so soon. This is the language equivalent of the violent anti-choice posters depicting full-term babies and representing them as four-week-old fetuses or 20-week abortions. Because we tie heartbeat to humanity, we are supposed to think of a five-week-old pregnancy as something much more than it is. This was the logical next step for the movement after the failure of personhood bills, and it is almost as threatening.
Of all of these, Arkansas’ law is the most immediately threatening, followed by the measure in North Dakota. The Arkansas bill has already passed through committee, but still needs to be passed in the state legislature. Given the state’s high number of conservative politicians, it is certainly feasible that such a thing might happen. There are similar worries about North Dakota, where the heartbeat ban is currently in committee. Many civil rights and women’s groups are expected to fight these measures, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. If you were thinking of donating time or money to a cause, keep this one in mind. This fight isn’t going anywhere, and women will need all the help they can get. Donating money, writing to government officials, and volunteering at your local clinic can all help. We have to show them that we will not be dragged back half a century, and that we will fight all the way.