May 2019 has seen a sweeping passage of anti-abortion laws across the United States and at its current number, nine states have passed extreme laws restricting a woman's access to vital healthcare procedures. The laws that have been passed, luckily without effect, for now, are extremely vague and ambiguous leaving out abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The new 'heartbeat' bills, as they have been misleadingly labelled give women a very short cap of six weeks to have an abortion, the time in which most women do not even realise they are pregnant. If this bill is to truly come into effect, the women it will affect the most are those who are already vulnerable and suffering from deep inequality in society. With President Trump vowing to appoint only conservative justices and Brett Kavanaugh taking his seat at the increasingly conservative Supreme Court, the United States is regressing in its attitudes to women's healthcare and reproductive rights. Abortion has not only just become an issue of health and human rights, but also an issue of social justice.
Georgia's Governor Brian Kemp signed a law entitled the 'heartbeat bill,' in early May this year, which bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy prohibiting abortion when a fetal heartbeat is said to be detected. The implications of this bill are terrifying, as it amounts to a near-total ban on the procedure because most women do not find out they are pregnant before six weeks. This concern has been echoed by the public, doctors and women's health advocacy groups. Dr Krystal Redman, executive director of Spark Reproductive Justice Now, a group that is focused on reproductive rights for women of colour, queer and trans people in the South, said that the bill is a "forced pregnancy bill. It's a health care ban."
The bill has a harsh penalty for doctors who are willing to perform this procedure for women. They can face up to ten years in prison. But, what is even more sinister about this bill is that it does not cover women who perform abortions with drugs themselves and this bill could potentially criminalise these women, who may even face murder charges. The effects of this can already be seen in the case of an Alabama woman, Marshae Jones who was arrested earlier this week, for initiating a dispute last December which led to another woman shooting her in the stomach. Jones has been indicted for manslaughter after losing her baby during this altercation, yet the charges against the shooter have been dismissed. This shows how the state's ambiguous laws towards abortion have led to an innocent woman's arrest. The argument from the police was that Jones started the fight and endangered her baby's life, so she will face the charges of manslaughter. Marshae had got into an argument, she did not expect to be shot, does that now mean every pregnant woman must not get into arguments or disagreements because that is now classified as 'child' endangerment. This is all before these laws have come into effect, yet it is very clear that the announcement of these bills has already affected the opinions of jury members. Amanda Reyes, executive director of the pro-choice group, The Yellowhammer Fund, who are assisting Jones on her case said in a statement "Today Marshae Jones is being charged with manslaughter for being pregnant and getting shot . . . Tomorrow, it will be another black woman, maybe for having a drink while pregnant. And after that, another, for not obtaining adequate prenatal care."
Another problem that comes along with the early time limit of six weeks is that even in the rare case a woman realises she is pregnant that early, her chance of abortion is already limited by access to the resources to make the procedure happen. Planned Parenthood notes the average cost for an abortion nationwide is from $350 (£275) to $950 (£748), and this varies even more so depending on the clinic and without factoring travel costs, especially when you have to travel upwards of 1,200 miles between Idaho and the Dakota's to even reach a provider. Further emphasising the detrimental effect this bill will have for women on a low-income salary.
Fundamentally, there are massive problems with the bill is in its name, the 'heartbeat' bill. The term has come under criticism because at six weeks a doctor is able to detect "a flicker of cardiac motion" on a transvaginal ultrasound, as Dr Catherine Romanos, who carries out abortions in the state of Ohio. Even then, the naming is problematic, as Dr Jen Gunter notes, the fetus itself does not have a heart at six weeks gestation, and the cardiac activity detected comes from tissue, named the fetus pole. News outlets have faced criticism from Doctors who accused the BBC of using medically inaccurate and biased language after they refused to stop describing US legislation as the 'heartbeat' bill. This is why I put it in quotations from the beginning, it is extremely difficult to talk about the bills without calling it by its name, but it is possible as for most of this post I have only named the bill three times, once for clarification and twice to criticise the terminology. Planned Parenthood, the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics and Marie Stopes International say it helps weaponise descriptions of abortions. Especially, when the BBC's editorial standards and royal charter require the corporation to act impartially. The BBC responded to the criticisms by saying it is now in common usage so they should not refrain from saying it, but could they just not refer to stories pertaining to the issue as "X state passes harsher abortion laws." As Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Dr Alvaro Bermejo asks the BBC to think again, especially when they share the blame for spreading the term.
The tough abortion laws are seen to be the gateway for conservative pro-life groups to overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark legislation that granted women access to the vital healthcare procedure of abortion. In a four-minute video for AJ+, president of Planned Parenthood, Dr Leana Wen declares a "state of emergency," announcing the "threat to Roe v Wade is very real." The Roe v Wade ruling in 1973 made it unconstitutional to ban abortion. But, with these new bills, that ruling is being challenged. Wen highlights that there are six states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia), which only have one provider of abortion services and when she visited the one place in Missouri that offered this service, upon arrival they were unable to provide. If they become unable to provide, they would go dark, there would be no abortion services for over a million women of reproductive age living in the state. If Roe v Wade is to be overturned that would mean one in three women of reproductive age living in the states, where abortion is banned, outlawed and even criminalised. The threat becomes much more real when the United States had a president like Trump, who said that he will only nominate judges who oppose women's health and rights, as well as appointed justice Kavanaugh, who has expressed clear contempt for Roe v Wade. With people like them in charge, it emboldens politicians who are anti-abortion, anti-women's health and reproductive rights. Dr Wen describes the acts of these politicians as methods of power and control over women's bodies and they are the ones who have made the issue political. She ends her message well by saying "the millions of women, and men, and youth, and LGBTQ people and all people who walk through our doors every year, they're not coming here to make a political statement."
Ultimately, those who argue pro-life, where are you in protecting mothers and decreasing maternal mortality rates? Where is Governor Kemp in tackling this issue that plagues his state, which suffers some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the U.S.? Where are you in protecting the lives of women and minorities who are already suffering? Where are you in defending the life of Marshae Jones, a woman who has suffered an immeasurable tragedy of charges at the consequences of the perception of your bill, which is soon to be in effect? How many more Marshae Jones' will there be to come?