On 7 May, Georgia became the fourth state this year to pass a ban on abortions after six weeks, well before many women know they are pregnant. Earlier this year, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi also passed six-week bans, which are often misleadingly called “heartbeat bills”.
The idea put forward by anti-abortion extremists is that six weeks represents a natural cut-off for abortion because it is the point at which doctors can first detect a foetal heartbeat – though at this stage an embryo does not yet have a heart. The beat that is detected is what doctors call foetal pole activity, and the embryo cannot survive independently of a woman’s body.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group, 14 states introduced, moved or enacted six-week bans in the first four months of this year. They are practically total abortion bans. Because pregnancy is dated from the first day of your last period, at six weeks pregnant your period is two weeks late – something that happens to women all the time, especially if their cycles are irregular. Few women have any pregnancy symptoms at this stage and even women who do detect their pregnancy early will struggle, especially in states with few abortion providers and mandatory counselling and waiting periods, to obtain an abortion before six weeks.
Such bans are also obviously unconstitutional: the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v Wade established access to safe and legal abortion up until foetal viability (around 23-25 weeks) as a constitutional right. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has already said it will challenge Georgia’s six-week ban in court, and to date the courts have successfully prevented other such bans from being implemented.
This shouldn’t offer much reassurance, however. Georgia’s bill forms part of a larger effort by anti-abortion extremists to force the issue of women’s reproductive rights back up to America’s highest court, in the hope that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court will overturn Roe v Wade.
In February, the Huffington Post listed 16 abortion cases that could reach the Supreme Court and dramatically restrict women’s reproductive freedoms. Five states have implemented “trigger laws” that would allow them to criminalise abortion as soon as they are constitutionally able to, and several others are considering such legislation.
The pace of legislative challenges to women’s reproductive rights, and their extreme nature, is terrifying. The Guttmacher Institute has found that 28 state legislatures passed abortion bans in the first three months of 2019. Barely a week passes without another attempt to chip away at reproductive freedoms in America.
On 1 May, Alabama’s House of Representatives voted to pass the so-called “Human Life Protection Act” which would make the provision of abortions a felony, carrying a prison sentence of 10 to 99 years. The legislation is expected to also pass the state senate and to be signed into law by the governor.
The following day, the Trump administration passed new legislation to strengthen the rights of healthcare providers to opt out of certain procedures – including abortion – because of their religious or moral beliefs. The guidelines appear to suggest this could even allow for ambulance drivers and paramedics to refuse to take a woman with an ectopic pregnancy to hospital because “the potential procedures performed at the hospital may include abortion”. To be clear: an ectopic pregnancy cannot survive, and untreated it can kill the woman.
While organisations such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU battle to protect women’s rights to legal and safe abortions, conservatives are simultaneously attacking women’s ability to access them anyway – by defunding family planning clinics and placing onerous restrictions on abortion providers. Figures from 2014 suggest that 90 per cent of US counties do not contain a single abortion clinic, while a 2017 study found that 27 cities are 100 miles or more away from the nearest abortion provider.
It’s hard to understate the scale of the current threat posed to women’s reproductive rights. Almost a quarter of American women will obtain an abortion during their lifetime, and should abortion become illegal they will not stop doing so – instead women will be forced to take greater risks to avoid carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. Before Roe v Wade, unsafe illegal abortions accounted for at least one in six pregnancy-related deaths. Nor is it coincidental that the states with the most restrictive abortion policies also post the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality – family planning is an essential component of reproductive health. What happens next could reshape women’s freedom, their health and their wellbeing for years or even decades to come.