The GOP "Heartbeat" Bill Has Nothing To Do With Fetal Heartbeats

by Chris Tognotti
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Over the past several years, state legislatures and governments under Republican control have passed a slew of anti-abortion laws and regulations, aimed in one way or another at tamping down and curtailing American women's access to reproductive health care. But now, in a frightening step for pro-choice activists and advocates, there's a high-profile effort being made at the federal level, too – the GOP's so-called "heartbeat" bill wouldn't really detect heartbeats in the first place, but that isn't stopping its backers from bringing it to the House floor.

The central dispute surrounding these sorts of pieces of legislation is a scientific argument about what constitutes a heartbeat, and this upcoming bill, sponsored by far-right Iowan Rep. Steve King, settles on a pretty radical definition. Namely, it would ban abortion after the gestational age at which a "heartbeat" — or what the GOP and anti-choice activists characterize as a "heartbeat" — can be detected. In practical terms, this amounts to a blanket ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, a cutoff so early that many women wouldn't even realize they're pregnant until its already too late.

But more to the point, as OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter detailed in a piece for the Huffington Post late last year, the description is deceptive in the vision of fetal development it advances. The "beating" in question isn't actually the rhythm of a formed heart around that six-week gestational age, but rather a thickening of the end of a yolk sack that represents the earliest discernible indication of fetal cardiac activity.

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The upshot, Gunter argued, is that anti-choice politicians are creating a false image in the public imagination of what an embryo or fetus actually looks like at such an early stage in its development, so as to stir up public sentiment against to the idea of women being allowed to terminate their pregnancies. Some anti-abortion advocates make use of tiny figurines showing varying stages of fetal growth which are, relative to what's actually seen on an ultrasound at the point of gestation this latest bill addresses, very misleading.

It won't be long before King's bill is debated by a House subcommittee. Titled the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017, it's currently scheduled for a hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Notably, it includes no exception for victims of rape and incest, with the only exception being a narrow carve-out for a pregnancy endangering the life of the mother.

The bill is widely expected to be almost impossible to pass through the Senate, owing to the Democratic minority controlling 48 seats, and the GOP requiring 60 votes to break a filibuster. It also wouldn't pass constitutional muster, at least not under the framework of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade back in 1973.

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Specifically, the Roe v. Wade ruling determined that women have a constitutional right to an abortion prior to the age of fetal viability — the age at which the fetus can potentially survive outside the womb with life-sustaining medical care — estimated at the time as around 24 weeks in, although the true age of viability can vary from case to case.

In recent years, advances in medical science have led conservative legislatures to try to push that viability age forward, in the form of 20-week abortion bans like the one in place in Texas. Nationwide, a full 21 states now ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

King, the sponsor of the bill, is one of the furthest-right elected politicians in America. In addition to frequent accusations of anti-immigrant racism — like after his infamous tweet proclaiming "we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies" — King has long been a strident opponent of reproductive rights. NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading pro-choice advocacy group, gives him a zero percent rating as far as support for abortion rights are concerned. Conversely, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) gives him a 100 percent pro-life grade.