Alabama isn’t exactly known for its pro-choice credentials. The same legislature banned abortion at 20 weeks just two years ago and faces pending litigation over current state restrictions on abortion. Now, Alabama lawmakers have gone even further with the proposed HB490 bill, or the “Fetal Heartbeat Act,” which would “make it unlawful for a physician to perform an abortion on a pregnant woman after a heartbeat has been detected.”
Simply put, HB490 would ban abortions as early as six weeks, a point at which many women don’t even know they’re pregnant. Of the bill’s 27 cosponsors, 22 are men.
In addition to the Fetal Heartbeat Act, Alabama lawmakers are also considering three more measures: a bill that would expand the current waiting period for an abortion from 24 hours to 48 hours; a bill that would make it significantly more difficult for a minor to obtain an abortion; and a bill that would prohibit abortions based on fatal anomalies unless the pregnant person “is made aware of the option of perinatal hospice services.”
The collection of legislation is outright dangerous. And according to Staci Fox, CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, which has two Alabama clinics, they came as a relative surprise. “None of these bills were part of the identified GOP agenda coming into this session,” she said.
While all four bills are extreme, piling a ban on abortions as early as six weeks on top of a current ban on abortions at 20 weeks goes far beyond public opinion on abortion.
“Alabama is not the first state to attempt to enact multiple, unconstitutional abortion bans at different points in pregnancy,” said Amanda Allen, State Legislative Counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights, in an email to TPM.
Alabama, while the most recent to take up such a ban, isn’t alone. In 2013, North Dakota was the first state to pass an abortion ban at six weeks — the most restrictive in the country at the time — and it has since been blocked by a federal judge. North Dakota, too had passed the six-week ban even after enacting an already-unconstitutional state ban at 20 weeks. And it was a similar story last year in Arkansas, which passed a bill banning abortion at 12 weeks, which has also been temporarily blocked, and another banning it at 20 weeks. Texas also introduced a six-week ban last year.
The six week bans are a sign that abortion opponents are growing more brazen in their attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, irrespective of what these bills actually do to the health and lives of pregnant Alabamians.
“Let’s be clear: this isn’t about the safety of women,” Fox said. “From the Fetal Heartbeat bill to the waiting period, basically what we’re telling women in Alabama is that we don’t trust you to make your own decisions so we’re going to make them for you.”
The legal precedent established in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey clearly says that states may not restrict abortion before the fetus is viable outside of the womb (generally around 24 weeks) in a way that presents an undue burden to women seeking an abortion. The Fetal Heartbeat legislation Alabama proposed is even more egregious than the fetal pain bans at 20 weeks, which themselves are unconstitutional and based on junk science. Fetal heartbeat bills seek to completely redefine how we constitutionally define “life” to anything with a heartbeat. They are essentially mandated pregnancy bills.
Alabama’s HB490 doesn’t even attempt to position itself as constitutional; such a bill is flagrantly and intentionally unconstitutional. This kind of legislation is designed to intentionally violate Roe v. Wade, in hopes that a more conservative Supreme Court will overturn the landmark legislation and eliminate the constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion.
When North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) signed the nation’s first Fetal Heartbeat bill into law in 2013, he openly admitted that he knew the bill violated the constitution. In fact, that was the point — “to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.”
Not only are state legislators knowingly violating the Constitution by proposing and passing fetal pain and fetal heartbeat legislation, they do so with a callous disregard for what bans like this do to the women of their state. Research shows that when abortions are illegal, it doesn’t stop pregnant people from trying to access abortion, but instead forces them to undergo an unsafe abortion. There’s nothing safe about fetal heartbeat legislation. In fact, it’s downright dangerous.
If Alabama lawmakers really cared about women’s safety, they wouldn’t be trying to ban safe abortion care before most people know they’re pregnant. They wouldn’t be extending the paternalistic and onerous waiting period for an abortion from 24 to 48 hours. They wouldn’t be shaming pregnant people carrying fetuses with fatal anomalies out of choosing abortion. They wouldn’t be playing Constitutional chicken with the lives of pregnant Alabamians.
Banning abortions before a person is even given the opportunity to make the decision about their own pregnancy completely erodes their constitutional right to choose and is as deliberate an attack on the right to a safe and legal abortion as we’ve seen. If HB490 becomes law, safe abortion in Alabama won’t just be inaccessible; it will be illegal.
Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared at publications such as Salon, RH Reality Check and TruthOut. She is a board member of the New Jersey Abortion Access Fund and is currently a graduate student in Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Follow her on twitter at @laurenarankin.
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