Fetal heartbeat bills – the right’s newest weapon in the fight to prevent women from accessing safe, legal abortions – trace their origins back to 2011.
That’s when lawmakers in Ohio first introduced such legislation. Republican leadership shelved the bill for being too “controversial.”
In 2013, the Republican-led Arkansas legislature passed SB 134, which sought to ban abortions after 12 weeks of gestation if a heartbeat is detected. The bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, but lawmakers overrode him. The law flouted the precedent of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that solidified a woman’s right to end her pregnancy unless the fetus is viable, something that most doctors agree happens at around 24 weeks. (In South Carolina, a 2016 law banned most abortions after 20 weeks.) A judge officially struck down the Arkansas law in 2014.
“The Supreme Court has … stressed that it is not the proper function of the legislature or the courts to place viability at a specific point in the gestation period,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Since then, fetal heartbeat bills have gotten less forgiving, shortening the amount of time for an abortion to just six weeks after conception, a time when many women don’t even know they are pregnant. The bills also pop up more frequently, picking up steam across the South and Midwest and, most recently, landing in the S.C. House of Representatives in December 2018.
“It is the number one strategy across the country,” says Ashley Lidow, the associate director of policy and government relations at the Columbia-based Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network.
After many tries, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a fetal heartbeat bill into law last week.
“It’s a common-sense bill,” said John McCravy, a state representative from Greenwood and the South Carolina bill’s lead sponsor, in an interview with the Greenville News. “Common sense should tell us that when a heart is beating, we have a precious human life that should not be terminated.”
The battle between women’s rights activists and the sponsors of the “SC Fetal Heartbeat Protection from Abortion Act” came to a head on Tues. April 2 — Equal Pay Day. Lidow recalls two rooms at the Statehouse teeming with women who were ready to tesify about how hard it is to get an abortion in South Carolina.
There are only three abortion clinics in the state. They don’t offer the procedure every day, which means that many patients must not only find a way to pay for the procedure, which is not covered by Medicaid, but must also wait, travel long distances, and exhaust a mandatory 24-hour waiting period.
“People don’t realize how many of their neighbors cannot access abortion based on any of those things,” Lidow says. “I have the means to go drive somewhere else. A lot of people do not have that.”
House members, however, were in a hurry.
“It moved that very same day to full committee,” recalls Vicki Ringer, a regional spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, which operates the only abortion clinic in the Charleston area. “That doesn’t happen in the legislature. It’s always a while, at least 24 hours between a subcommittee bill and a full committee bill.”
There are theories as to why these bills are on such a fast track. For one, President Donald Trump has done his best to pack federal courts with conservative judges likely to uphold the laws.
“Now that there’s a conservative Supreme Court, they’re all trying to test the court system,” Lidow says. “It’s fully intentional to put the most egregious thing into law.”
Next year’s legislative elections also loom. Some think the bill is an attempt to rally conservatives around an issue that triggers deep, emotional responses from voters in both political parties. Even if the bill doesn’t pass the state Senate, its dozens of supporters in the state House can say they stood by it.
“I’ve heard they wanted to get it done before next year’s election, because they felt that if they pass it in an election year, some people would lose their seats, because it’s not something the public supports,” Ringer says.
It is easier for opposing lawmakers to stop a bill from moving forward in the state Senate than in the House, where the rules are different and bills can’t be filibustered out of discussion, as Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston did with an eight-hour speech last year.
For now, the fetal heartbeat bill is on the contested calendar in the state House, meaning that it falls on a long list behind the prioritized, uncontested bills. When lawmakers return to Columbia on Tues. April 23, they’ll only have a few days to consider both lists. Even if the bill moves on to the Senate, it likely won’t be heard until next year.
“I think they’ll be able to hold it off from passing,” Lidow says of the upper chamber. “But never say never. You never know when a legislator might just say, ‘You know what? Let them pass it. Take it to the courts.'”
“The Senate has shown that it takes more caution when taking away rights from people,” Ringer says.
As it stands, no fetal heartbeat bill has gone into effect in any state.
Earlier this month, a Texas state lawmaker introduced a bill that would allow for women to be charged with murder for getting an abortion, exposing them to the death penalty under Texas law. It’s unlikely to go anywhere, but it underscores the reality that abortions, and the women who seek them, are contantly under threat.
“I hear a lot of activists half-joke, half-not that we’re starting to live in The Handmaid’s Tale, but a lot of folks already live that life under the system that we have,” Ringer cautions.