Why the “Heartbeat Bill” is Bullshit

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I’m going to be honest – I’ve had a hard time writing since the election. Every day, I turn on the news and learn something new about the incoming administration that truly bothers me. I have felt outraged by the ceaseless onslaught of hypocrisy over special interests and “pay for play” allegations that make the concerns regarding Clinton quaint mementos of a historically vicious general election campaign. I have watched, bewildered, as remarkably unqualified people take over cabinet positions that shape our country’s course on a day to day basis. And I have yet to grow accustomed to our future president stalking his Twitter account like an angst-ridden teenager procrastinating on his homework (hint, Mr. President-Elect: your homework includes accepting and absorbing your daily intelligence briefings).

In the midst of all this, it’s been difficult isolating any one thing I needed to say. Indeed, I’ve felt that I need to say it all. And that is exactly what has stopped me in my tracks.

Until now.

Congratulations, Ohio. Your outrageous new abortion law has me so singularly focused that I can at least attempt to bring attention to an issue outside of the general “please God, don’t let tomorrow’s tweet start a nuclear war.”

In case you aren’t yet aware, Ohio passed what is known as the “heartbeat bill” last Tuesday. Governor Kasich has veto power over the extremely restrictive bill but, should it go through, the state could (pending certain litigation) ban abortions after a mere 6 weeks.

Did you hear that? I said, 6 weeks. For those unfamiliar with women’s reproductive health, that may sound like plenty of time to seek an abortion. But the reality is that this provides a measly 2 week window from the time a woman misses her period because, sneaky sneaky, doctors count a pregnancy from a woman’s LMP (last menstrual period). Surprise! You were technically pregnant for 2 weeks before you even had sex! You didn’t find out you were actually pregnant until (at the absolute earliest) 2 weeks after that so – stick with me on the simple math here – what we’re left with is 2 more weeks before hitting the proposed abortion cut off in Ohio.

Ignoring the immense obstacles Republican legislators around the country have placed in the way of women seeking abortions and the time it takes to actually receive care, this is an inarguably absurd and arbitrary cut off; one likely proposed by those who are well aware that such a law would effectively ban abortion entirely. What was that about Republicans having a monopoly on constitutional piety? Seems blatantly obvious this is simply a ploy to obstruct the consistently upheld Roe v. Wade ruling. But I digress…

Here’s why this is, excuse me, bullshit:

Pro-lifers tend to claim that life begins at conception so, in their eyes, all abortion is effectively murder. Such a view makes discussing the topic nearly impossible. But I could respect that position if they could articulate when exactly conception happens. Go ahead, ask any pro-lifer you know. Chances are they won’t have the real answer because they usually aren’t doctors.

(Psstt… that’s exactly why we get angry about politicians making medical decisions for us. They aren’t knowledgeable. They pass their ignorance on. And they harm real people in the process.)

Time is up! Are you ready for the answer?

There is no single moment of conception. 

It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days for sperm to reach a woman’s egg(s). From there, the sperm needs to burrow into the egg; a process which generally takes about one hour. So is that the moment of conception?

Not so fast.

The time it takes for the sperm’s DNA to merge with the egg’s DNA is another 12 hours. Not to mention the day long process of combining chromosomes. 2-3 days worth of creating a genetic blueprint can hardly be described as a ‘moment.’

So the question remains: at what point did those cells become human? Is a zygote human if it has yet to implant itself in the uterine wall? That doesn’t happen until around day 6. Consider that it’s possible for a fertilized egg to split into twins (or other multiples) up to two weeks after implantation. Since we consider identical twins to be separate entities when they are born, could we ascribe “humanness” to any embryo prior to that point? Wouldn’t that mean the same “soul” is attached to two bodies?

There are, of course, many schools of thought on this matter. And they all raise important ethical questions. These are questions to be considered in earnest and not thrown away with a casual, “life begins at conception.” When your vote directly impacts women’s lives, it is your duty to seek information and think critically.

Knowing all this about early pregnancy, my personal pro-choice stance comes down to this:

Should it be illegal to pull the plug on a brain dead patient?

My answer, and the answer of most everyone I know, is a resounding “no.” And it is precisely why I support abortion up to the point of viability or later when profound developmental abnormalities (or risks to the mother’s health) become apparent. If life cannot be sustained without a host (either in the womb or through medical intervention), is it unethical to make an informed decision to “unplug?”

Try to look past the terminology if it offends because I believe it is important to make this analogy clear.

I can already hear the oft repeated and overly simplistic pro-life mantra, “if a woman opens her legs, she must be prepared to deal with the consequences. She chose to have sex.” Vulgar? Sure. Insensitive? I would argue, yes. Intellectually lazy? You betcha. Ignoring the profound ignorance of such a statement, I realize that such people would undoubtedly argue that the baby had no choice in the matter and, therefore, doesn’t deserve to be “punished.”

So let’s follow that train of thought. Imagine a person decides to drink and drive. Said person invariably crashes and is rushed to the hospital, hooked up to life support, and eventually pronounced brain dead. His heart is kept beating by a ventilator and he occasionally exhibits jerky movements despite a measurable absence of brain stem function. The pro-life argument would tend to suggest that he should remain in this state permanently, that we have no right to allow his body to shut down completely even though we know his body will do just that when he is taken off life support.

(Granted, this is not usually a stance taken by pro-life advocates but, if we’re being consistent, it is one they should take.)

But, wait. He chose to drink and drive. Since he is responsible for his condition, like women who “open their legs”, what is the best course of action? Should we “punish” him by continuing to allow his body to linger? What about the physical, emotional, and financial burden placed on his caretakers? Surely, they shouldn’t have to suffer prolonged trauma because of his bad decision, right?

These sort of questions are big. They take time to process. So let’s examine, instead, the science behind what makes a person a living being and, specifically, why the detection of a heartbeat is not in and of itself an appropriate rationale to ban abortions.

Currently, the mainstream medical view of death follows the whole-brain standard. This states that “human death is the irreversible cessation of functioning of the entire brain, including the brainstem.” Wouldn’t it make sense to apply that same rule to the beginning of life? Science tells us that regular brain activity begins around week 25. Prior to that point, irregular neural firing can be detected but is inconsistent and not sufficient to be considered a measure of life. And there we come full circle to our life support analogy. Because even after brain death occurs, patients kept alive by artificial means can display the same sporadic brain activity as a fetus prior to the stage of viability.

Of course, this relies on a willingness to accept science. While I believe science should always be the trump card, it’s an unfortunate reality in today’s world that it regularly loses out to conspiracy theories, literal biblical interpretation, and flat out misinformation. On that point, I offer you this:

If we afford parents (or any next of kin) the respect of allowing them to make choices for their brain dead loved ones, why would we not afford that same respect to a pregnant woman?

And here, we touch on one of the more brutal aspects of restrictive abortion laws in this country. The vast majority of abortions occur in the first trimester. Of those that occur in the second and third trimesters, they are often the result of detected fetal abnormalities. They are wanted pregnancies. They are mourned pregnancies. And we commit an unfathomable injustice to such mothers when we deprive them of medical choices in their greatest time of need.

“But my God is capable of performing miracles,” some say. They may go on to cite anecdotal evidence of women whose fetal scans showed lethal abnormalities but, somehow, went on to give birth to healthy children. Wonderful. Nobody wants to see babies die, pro-choice advocates included! But the very definition of a ‘miracle’ implies that it must be a rare phenomenon as it is an event which runs counter to the established laws of nature. So, yeah, miracles are great. But are we willing to legislate on such a hope, knowing that, for the vast majority of women, no miracle will materialize?

As a woman who has endured two miscarriages, I am intimately familiar with the pain of losing a wanted pregnancy. It’s a pain that never fully abates. And the trauma of feeling your body rebel against the natural order of things, of its failure to complete a primal need, is rarely discussed. I will never entirely get over that feeling of losing control, of having no say in what was happening to my body. For those women who continue to carry unviable babies, whose bodies do not spontaneously abort as mine did (“spontenoeous abortion” is the medical term ascribed to miscarriage), being unable to safely access an abortion would take that trauma and multiply it exponentially.

Imagine having zero control. Imagine having the government tell you that you must carry an unviable pregnancy to term and then watch your baby suffocate because her lungs were not fully formed. Imagine being forced to give birth to a child you will not be able to touch until he has died an inevitable death. Imagine one hundred other awful, impossible scenarios. But do it. Because when we fail to empathize, we further suffering.

In spite of this, Ohio’s “heartbeat bill” provides no exception for rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities. I ask you – when science is willingly overlooked in favor of scripture, as is often the rationale behind such measures, does the kind of suffering produced advance the Kingdom of God in any way?

I ask this not with contempt but as a person of faith myself.

Since the pro-life agenda consistently fails to safeguard against unwanted pregnancies in the first place, I am inclined to believe that these laws are simply using religion as a means of control. If you disagree, I challenge you to work toward altering their platform on sex ed and access to birth control. Surely, it is easier to stop a problem before it begins than to complain that it exists at all.

Listen, I get it. It can be scary to step away from one’s pro-life label because it feels like an identity; an identity rooted in one’s faith. I totally understand. But push yourself anyway. Push yourself to learn all you can and to talk to as many women who have been affected by these laws as you can. Do your best to contemplate the many ethical dilemmas posed by the question of when life begins.

And if you come out pro-life on the other side, so be it. But make damn sure you can defend your position beyond a weak, “life begins at conception.” Because, God willing, Trump’s irresponsible impulsivity won’t actually start a nuclear war and all our hyperbolic musings are for naught. In that case, your vote really will continue to matter. Use it wisely.

In the mean time, Governor Kasich’s office would surely love to hear from you. Make sure they understand the science behind pregnancy. Make sure they understand the ways in which real women will suffer. But make your voice heard because, as you know, loud is ladylike.

Click here for ways to contact Governor Kasich’s office and to learn about more ways to help.

  • C
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2 thoughts on “Why the “Heartbeat Bill” is Bullshit

  1. C, this is an excellent, timely, well-thought-out post on this quintessential hot-button issue. And I couldn’t agree more. Ethical issues are tough enough for philosophers, let alone politicians, and legislating rules for these deeply painful personal decisions is something the government should be wary of. FYI, I just listened to an interesting Radolab podcast on “the 14 day rule” that you might be interested in.
    http://www.radiolab.org/story/primitive-streak/

    Again, excellent piece. ~James

    Like

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