Abortion legislation gains momentum nation-wide

There are few issues more combustible than abortion.  Disagreements on fiscal policy or healthcare have entirely different consequences than do disagreements on abortion.  Abortion is an extremely personal issue that brings to surface extreme passions regarding an unborn child’s right to live as well as a woman’s right to govern her own body.

Of late, the issue has been in the spotlight than it has been in the last several decades, overshadowed by a troubled economy, war on terror and now even an Egyptian revolution.  Those issues, however, don’t mean the issue of abortion isn’t smoldering across the country.

Ohio decided to push the issue last week as Republican State Representative Lynn Wachtmann introduced a bill that would ban abortions once there is evidence a heart beat is present in the fetus, found as early 18 days old, but usually around the sixth week of pregnancy.

Nicknamed the “Heartbeat bill,” the legislation is in direct opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, which allowed abortions under the cloak of right to privacy for the mother.  The ruling called for law on abortion to be established at the state level based on the fetus’ viability, which is its ability to survive outside the womb (usually around 27 weeks).

This bill is not alone, indicating that the issue is simmering for many Americans.  Last year, Alaska witnessed a ballot initiative pass on election day that required parental notification for teenage abortions—most recently it was declared unconstitutional by the state attorney general. Next week, the Texas State Senate will vote on legislation that will require doctors to provide women with a sonogram that includes an image and heartbeat sound at least 24 hours before a scheduled abortion.  Across the country, many other states are proposing anti-abortion measures.

Interestingly, the pro-choice ruling on Roe v. Wade has seen its interpretation evolve over time, in one way because technology has improved our ability to help a fetus survive outside the womb.  But that is not enough for pro-life advocates who believe that the fetus has the right to live from the moment of conception.  And a heartbeat is a strong reminder of that fact, a reminder that many find hard to argue with.

Many women discover they are pregnant around the time the heartbeat develops in a fetus. Consider that the first indication of pregnancy, a missed period, comes at four weeks after conception.  Furthermore, home pregnancy tests are only accurate in the range of one day to one week after a missed period.  So while the heartbeat bill might seem reasonable to many people, it will also severely limit a woman’s ability to choose an abortion given the short, if any, interval of when a woman would know of a pregnancy and when the baby’s heartbeat would begin.

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Finally, as with all legislation, it must be considered with unintended consequences.  If a heartbeat were the new standard (or dating mechanism) for legal abortions, will that standard also be applied in the case of rape, abuse and incest or a life threatening emergency?  It is an important consideration as some conservatives believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, including these extreme circumstances.

The new action on abortion law may itself be an unintended, or perhaps very much intended, consequences of the vast Republican success last election.  Citizens must remain engaged on the issue, even as seemingly “bigger” events take over the spotlight.