It’s hard to exercise your right to choose when you didn’t even know you had a choice to make.
That’s the perverse logic behind the latest attempt to destroy abortion rights. Rep. Steve King’s (R‑Ia.) proposal for an abortion ban at the sixth week of pregnancy would undercut reproductive rights by blocking people from getting an abortion before many are aware they are pregnant. The drastic cut-off date would lead countless people to realize that not only are they pregnant, but Washington had already decided they will carry the pregnancy to term.
“The GOP’s obsession with banning all abortions in this country knows no end, no boundary, and no common sense,” said Sasha Bruce, senior vice president. in a statement following the announcement of a hearing in the House of Representatives on November 1. “Their latest clearly unconstitutional idea is a ban that applies to [people] who don’t even know they’re pregnant yet, intentionally preventing them from accessing care altogether.”
The ban has been denounced as absurd in its extreme timeline and frightening in its sudden appearance at the foreground of the congressional agenda. One of the harshest federal abortion restrictions proposed so far, the measure reveals the anti-choice lobby’s position that a theoretical future human somehow deserves more sympathy than the sentient human being currently carrying the pregnancy. Similarly troubling priorities are often deployed in propaganda highlighting “fetal pain” or mandating “funerals” for terminated pregnancies.
Elizabeth Nash of the advocacy group Guttmacher Institute told In These Times that the legislation’s emotive moniker — the “heartbeat” bill — is “designed to elicit images of a wanted pregnancy and very clearly ignores [individual] circumstances.”
It’s neither the first such ban to be proposed nor the first to fail. Republicans have repeatedly tried to impose de facto bans by redefining the court-established timeline for fetal viability of about 24 weeks. Cutting the window to just six weeks circumvents the basic constitutional question of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Similar proposals on the state level have been blocked by court challenges (a six-week ban was recently struck down in North Dakota).
Meanwhile, health providers agree that six weeks falls well outside the realm of viability. The timeline reflects not medical science but the hard Right’s anatomical mythology — peddled by the groups that vaulted Trump into office, along with long-time abortion foe Vice President Mike Pence.
Abortion access for poor people is already restricted under federal Medicaid laws, but the bill would affect state programs that provide for abortion, as well as insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). A blanket prohibition after six weeks, Nash explains, would apply to all people nationwide, “not just abortions provided through Medicaid or through health plans in the Affordable Care Act Exchanges.”
Since conservatives are waging a parallel battle to repeal the ACA, the two measures threaten a dual attack on reproductive rights and healthcare. Meanwhile, reproductive health protections in the ACA are already evaporating: Trump recently rolled back contraceptive coverage by allowing employers to claim “religious” or “moral” exemptions — potentially blocking access to cost-free birth control for many.
The six-week ban would also pose heavy health risks. A study of the 20-week abortion bans currently implemented in 16 states shows that the rescued “heartbeats” come at a heavy social cost. The ban is linked to increased newborn deaths and defects, as well as massive additional healthcare costs and “decreased quality of life.” And because the 20-week ban would exacerbate the existing scarcity of affordable, accessible abortion providers, researchers found that women would have to travel longer distances to seek out an affordable abortion facility.
Now conservatives seek to cut the timeline for its “pro-life” agenda from 20 to just six months.
Of course, both critics and proponents of the ban know such an extreme proposal would be dead on arrival. But conservatives are looking for an opportunity to cynically exploit the dysfunction of partisan healthcare politics. Abortion rights groups warn that lawmakers can still gain with a largely symbolic proposal, by quietly fraying the legal thread by which Roe v. Wade currently hangs. Shifting the goalpost to six weeks would further poison the abortion debate by forcing Democrats on the defensive and swaying some “centrist” votes to the right. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci observes, if a totally ludicrous ban is “anchoring the conversation at the anti-choice extreme,” the GOP can then grease through slightly less egregious measures.
In Ohio, a similar ban eked through the legislature and was blocked only by Governor John Kasich’s reluctant veto — after which he quickly substituted a “better” but incredibly regressive 20-week abortion ban. Congress may be playing the same good-cop-bad-cop game, as it weighs a 20-week ban alongside King’s six-week ban. Passed by the House in early October, the 20-week ban is likely aimed at pushing some “centrists” to support the more “moderate” restriction. The public is led to believe that these proposals are backed by relatively “reasonable” lawmakers. Pence’s endorsement of a nightmarish fetal “burial” bill back when he was Governor somehow seems increasingly less extreme as the center drifts rightward.
Another reason to fear the six-week ban is that in our current political maelstrom, just one more scandal could cause enough distraction on the Hill to allow Republicans to quietly slip the heartbeat legislation through with little scrutiny.
A six-week abortion ban may be medically nonsensical and politically nonviable, but it reveals the anti-abortion lobby’s cleverly cruel deception. They are trying let the law determine individuals’ reproductive futures before they have a chance to. In the Right’s war of attrition against Roe, it’s not the first attempt to deny Americans a critical right.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.