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These Are the States That Passed ‘Heartbeat Bills’

Louisiana became the next state likely to pass a “heartbeat bill” this week, aiming to ban abortion as soon as a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. This provision amounts to a near total ban on abortion, as such activity can be heard as early as six weeks—before many woman are even aware they’re pregnant.

The terms “heartbeat bill” and “fetal heartbeat” themselves are misnomers, phrases coined by conservative politicians to create the illusion of a child in need of protection, says Planned Parenthood, since a heart has yet to form at six weeks; the detected rhythm is electrical activity coming from a 4-millimeter-wide growth called the fetal pole.

Regardless of language, this type of regulation threatens the precedent set by Roe v. Wade in 1973, when the Supreme Court stated the decision to have an abortion cannot be regulated before roughly the end of the first trimester. Before this point, around 12 weeks, the court’s opinion states abortion “must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.”

Thus these “heartbeat bills” are frequently blocked. North Dakota, for example, passed such a bill in 2013, but it was declared unconstitutional two years later. Iowa, too, had its 2018 bill blocked by a state judge in January. In Mississippi and Kentucky, judges have temporarily blocked bills passed earlier this year.

Still, that hasn’t stopped several states from enacting such restrictive legislation, hoping to challenge Roe, now that the nation’s highest court leans conservative. (Other states, like Texas and Florida, have tried to pass such legislation, but the bills never reached the governor).

In the meantime, however, abortion remains legal in all 50 states, albeit with varying regulations. These are the states that have recently passed (or are trying to pass) legislation banning abortion at or before activity in the fetal pole can be detected.

Louisiana

Louisiana’s Democratic governor has said he will sign the state legislators’ restrictive abortion bill into law when it reaches his desk, making it illegal to perform an abortion when a “fetal heartbeat” is present. Although such measures are typically put forward by the conservative right, the primary sponsor of Louisiana’s legislation is Democratic Sen. John Milkovich.

The bill, signed by the Senate president Thursday, provides exceptions in case of a threat to the mother’s health and in case of a “medically futile” pregnancy (when the unborn child has a condition where it is not likely to survive after birth). It does not provide exceptions for rape or incest.

Should this bill become law, any doctor who performs an abortion in violation of it faces prosecution and penalty under two separate statutes, one of which (R.S. 14:87) calls for imprisonment “at hard labor” for one to 10 years and a fine ranging from $10,000 to $100,000.

Additionally, the bill includes a measure to make abortion completely illegal should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

Louisiana’s bill will only go into effect if a similar bill approved in March is upheld in court, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has already vowed to challenge it.

Missouri

The governor of Missouri signed a bill including the “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act” on May 24, banning abortion at eight weeks (“fetal heartbeats” can be first detected in the six to eight week range).

The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest; only a “medical emergency” makes the procedure permissible. Any doctor who performs an abortion after eight weeks in violation of this Act can face five to 15 years in prison and may lose his or her professional license. The law will go into effect on August 28.

The ACLU of Missouri has submitted a referendum petition to the Missouri Secretary of State to fight the eight-week ban. If signed by 100,000 voters, the petition would block the ban from going into effect until a statewide vote has been held, giving citizens the option to veto the law.

The Missouri bill also includes a section that would make abortion outright illegal at any period (except in cases of medical emergencies) if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned.

Alabama

Alabama’s legislation went further than these so-called “heartbeat bills” and banned abortion at any stage of development. This was done without a clause that Roe v. Wade must first be overturned—in fact, the bill was designed to challenge Roe directly.

“Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973,” said Governor Kay Ivey in a statement announcing the bill’s signing. “The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.”

The “Alabama Human Life Protection Act,” signed into law in mid-May, provides exceptions only in the case of severe risk to the mother’s health and in the case of a “lethal anomaly” in the unborn child. Exceptions in cases of rape or incest are not provided.

If a doctor performs an abortion in violation of this law, he or she may be sentenced to anywhere from 10 to 99 years in prison. The law is set to go into effect six months after it’s passage, in November, but will face legal challenges from the ACLU of Alabama, the national ACLU, and Planned Parenthood.

Georgia

The governor of Georgia signed the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act” in early May, making it illegal to perform an abortion when a “fetal heartbeat” is detectable, except in cases where the mother’s health is at risk, the pregnancy is “medically futile,” or an official police report has been filed alleging the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

The law’s text states that “modern medical science,” unavailable at the time of Roe v. Wade‘s decision, demonstrates that “unborn children are a class of living, distinct persons.” Any doctor who performs an abortion in violation of the Act may be subject to criminal and civil penalties.

The law is set to go into effect in January 2020, but groups like the ACLU of Georgia have promised to challenge it in court.

Ohio

Ohio’s law, signed in April, bans abortion as soon as a “fetal heartbeat” is detected, allowing exceptions only in the case of a significant risk to the mother’s health. Exceptions for rape or incest are not provided.

Any doctor who performs an abortion despite the detection of fetal pole activity could be sentenced to up to a year in prison and face a $2,500 fine. He or she may also be penalized by the State Medical Board, facing additional fines up to $20,000.

The law is set to go into effect on July 11, but is likely to get caught up in court—something legislators were “counting on,” Rep. Ron Hood told NPR.

The ACLU of Ohio and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against the legislation on May 15.

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—How civil rights and liberties activists are taking on Capitol Hill