One of the central disagreements between those who support reproductive rights (including safe, legal access to abortion) and those who call themselves "pro-life" is the point at which life begins. While the legal definition of "fetal viability" varies by state, The Washington Post reports that most medical professionals agree that a fetus cannot survive outside the womb prior to 22 weeks after a woman's last menstrual period. But lawmakers in Ohio have just voted to throw that number out the window, passing a bill that would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — usually around six weeks into a pregnancy.
Although it has not yet been signed into law — it's waiting on Gov. John Kasich's desk — the Ohio bill could be an ominous sign of what's to come in the fight for reproductive rights under a Donald Trump administration. Gone are the days of obscure building regulations that would effectively shutter women's health clinics. Even before Trump has assumed office, Ohio Republicans are blatantly legislating the womb, rejecting established science and medical knowledge to declare that a fetus is viable before a woman might even know she's pregnant. The bill offers no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, and numerous legal experts have suggested that such a law would be patently unconstitutional.
Ohio's "heartbeat bill" was passed Dec. 6 through the Republican-controlled House and Senate, as an unrelated amendment tacked on to a larger bill aiming to expedite authorities' responses to reports of child abuse. The entire proposal, with the heartbeat bill attached, is now awaiting action from Kasich, who has 10 days to either sign or veto the bill, before it becomes law automatically. (If it becomes law, the heartbeat bill would take effect early next year.)
Similar bills have been introduced in the Ohio legislature previously, but they have never passed the State Senate, CNN reported. But during this year's lame duck session, Senate leaders saw new opportunities, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber told reporters on Dec. 6. Asked why he pursued this legislation at this time, Faber specifically mentioned "a new president."
Regardless of whether Kasich signs or vetoes the bill, the sheer audacity of the proposal should put reproductive rights advocates on alert. While recent efforts to restrict access to abortion have focused on nuanced regulations that make it almost impossible for clinics to function, Ohio's heartbeat bill goes, well, straight to the heart of the matter. Without citing medical evidence, the bill attempts to advance the nation's strictest anti-abortion law, categorically declaring that a pregnancy must be carried to term from its earliest stages.
The legislation is so sweeping that even some pro-life groups oppose the heartbeat bill, reports Cleveland.com. Ohio Right to Life, which the site calls "the state's largest anti-abortion lobby" opposed a similar bill in 2014, citing concerns that such a law would fail to pass a constitutional challenge. At that time, Kasich expressed similar "concerns" about the bill's viability.
Finally, BuzzFeed crucially noted that the tight time-frame for legal abortions mandated by the bill becomes even shorter when considering Ohio's existing laws on abortion, which require a 24-hour waiting period between a consult and the procedure. As BuzzFeed's Ema O'Connor explained, many women don't know they are pregnant for two months, and even if they do find out before, it might be difficult to get an abortion because of the strict wait time:
If Kasich signs the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union has already promised to challenge it in court. But regardless of the fate of Ohio's heartbeat bill, it seems likely that anti-abortion lawmakers feel emboldened by Trump's election — meaning advocates of reproductive rights have a long four years ahead of them.
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