The Controversial Debate Surrounding 'Heartbeat' Bills in the United States

The Controversial Debate Surrounding 'Heartbeat' Bills in the United States

My Contribution

This is a public policy article I wrote independently about the "heartbeat" bill

Nature of the Issue

When it comes to policy issues, “Heartbeat” bills are still one of the most controversial state topics in contemporary American society. These bills prohibit any abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which means abortions could be banned as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Regarding this legislation, pro-choice groups assert that every woman has the basic human right to make choices about their bodies and that their rights should not be constrained by government or any other religious authorities. On the other hand, pro-life groups believe that pregnancy begins at conception, and every life has a right to life. 

Currently, nine states have already passed a bill to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. However, the heartbeat bill that was recently signed by Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Governor, does not include an exception for rape or incest, which generated a huge debate in public opinion. According to the FBI’s crime data in Ohio, there were over 4,000 women raped in 2017 (Safrona, 2019). Within these 4,000 victims, more than 800 people were assaulted by their family members (Safrona, 2019). More importantly, Elizabeth Watson from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project said, “ninety percent of Ohio abortions are performed at or after six weeks” (Heisig, 2019). Thus, if this bill goes into effect, many women who get pregnant from rape will not be given any chance to abort, since there may be no signs of pregnancy before six weeks. Meanwhile, there are many factors that can cause a fetal heartbeat to remain undetected, so there may be many errors in determining if a woman can get an abortion.

History of the Issue

One of the most important U.S. rulings regarding abortion laws was the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade. The ruling from this case showed that any “statute that prohibited abortion” (Goldman 1986) or “statutes that imposed such stringent requirements on abortion as to make abortion unavailable” (Goldman 1986) were unconstitutional. This was extremely beneficial to women because it legalized abortion on a national level. However, the case did not totally relax abortion laws as the U.S. Supreme Court said that abortions “could be interfered with only if the state could show a compelling interest” (Goldman 1986). In addition to this restriction, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed down abortion decisions by separating them by the trimesters of pregnancy. The laws stated that in the first trimester, “a woman has a virtually unfettered right to have an abortion” (Goldman 1986). However, during the second trimester, abortions could be refused as long as the reasons “are limited to preservation and protection of maternal health” (Goldman 1986). Lastly, in the third trimester, states could “proscribe abortion except where necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother” 

Another monumental event for abortion laws was the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In this case, Planned Parenthood challenged Pennsylvania’s 1982 Abortion Control Act, which further restricted abortion regulations. Additionally, rulings from the Roe v. Wade case were revisited, and the result was that “Roe v. Wade was affirmed but that the bulk of the Pennsylvania law was constitutional nonetheless” (McBride). This supported that states could not outright prevent women from getting abortions, but it also gave states more power to regulate abortions. The original Roe v. Wade trimester ruling changed so that instead, abortions could not be banned before a fetus is viable”(the point at which the fetus is able to sustain life outside the womb)” (McBride).  This weakened abortion regulation restrictions because states could now have “regulations affecting the first trimester, but only to safeguard a woman's health” (McBride). Regarding heartbeat bills, this change was very significant because states now had the opportunity to prevent abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, only halfway into the first trimester.

Heartbeat bills are very controversial, and many people disapprove of them because according to the Roe v. Wade ruling, the bills should be unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade does not allow abortions to be banned before the viability point, but with heartbeat bills stopping abortions as early as six weeks, they contradict this ruling because a fetus often becomes viable “slightly before the third trimester”(McBride). With the first heartbeat bill only “introduced in Ohio in 2011” (Ravitz, 2019), they are fairly new in the United States. In the short time that they have been around, many of them have been proposed. So far in 2019, “lawmakers in 15 states have lined up to introduce fetal heartbeat legislation” (Ravitz, 2019). Most of these bills are not successful, but Ohio is one of the few states where it has passed. Jamieson Gordon of Ohio Right to Life said “the ultimate goal is to get Roe v. Wade overturned” (Ravitz, 2019). Thus with the rise of heartbeat bills, it is evident that the effort to ban abortions is getting much stronger, but Pro-life advocates must successfully overturn Roe v. Wade.

Where Things Stand Now in Addressing the Issue

Even though pro-life Ohio governor signed the Heartbeat Bill on April 2019 to restrict abortion, this bill was sued by American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU), who asserted that the 6 week abortion ban breached U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade at 1973. However, this was not the only issue. Michael Ryan Barrett, the United State District judge in Ohio, issued a 12 page order to block the Heartbeat Bill one week before it took effect on July 3, 2019. However, pro-life politicians were already aware of the low chance of this bill becoming a law in their state, thus, their ultimate goal is to persuade justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. On the other hand, temporarily blocking the Heartbeat Bill only means that it will not be effective for a short period of time in Ohio, hence Barrett thinks “those arguments must be made to a higher court” (O’Connor & Tillman, 2019). Despite pro-choice groups and activists thinking that the Supreme Court is less likely to overturn major precedent Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court Justices, and Trump’s appointees have expressed anti-abortion views in the past (BuzzFeed). Therefore, there is a possibility that Roe v. Wade could be weakened and could put an “undue burden” on women who seek abortions because the courts just overturned a different 40-year-old legal precedent in 2019.

Possible Policy Alternatives

A possible policy alternative that gives more freedom to abortion rights is to follow in the footsteps of New York with its Reproductive Health Act. The main purpose of this act is to “codify Roe v. Wade protections into state law and ensure access to safe, legal abortion” (“FAQs about the Reproductive Health Act”, 2019). Therefore, this would protect abortion rights in NY in the case that Roe v. Wade does get overturned. The biggest difference from the heartbeat bill is that the Reproductive Health Act keeps the Roe v. Wade viability method to determine whether a woman can have an abortion, rather than by detecting a heartbeat. This is beneficial to women because they will have a much longer time frame to determine if they want an abortion. Additionally, the act “removes abortion from the state's criminal code” (Marco, 2019), so any qualified person performing abortions will not need to worry about possible violations. The downside of removing abortion from the criminal code is that if a pregnant woman loses her baby from being assaulted, the choice will be up to the judge to further sentence the criminal. Additionally, “medical professionals other than doctors” (Marco, 2019) can perform abortions, so there could be more accidents since less experienced people will be able to perform the operation.

Although there is still much controversy about the heartbeat bill between pro-life groups and pro-choice groups, proponents of pro-choice groups want to relax abortion laws based on Roe v. Wade through the Reproductive Health Act. On the contrary, in Tennessee, where there are more conservatives,  the pro-life groups “have opposed the heartbeat bill due to the potential for litigation, instead supporting the trigger ban legislation” (Allison, 2019). However, if abortion is completely banned, it will not only affect women but will also have a great impact on society as a whole. Firstly, the total ban of abortions will lead to more people seeking outside illegal abortions. According to Women’s health on NBC News, “nearly 97 percent of all unsafe abortions were in poor countries” (NBC News, 2007).  Secondly, women will lose their right to body autonomy, which means that women who have unplanned pregnancies due to rape or incest have no right to abort. In this case, it will lead to more children being abandoned or becoming orphans after birth. At the same time, the prohibition of abortion will also bring benefits to society. It will reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy, because to some extent, abortion represents the failure of sexual education and contraception.  In this case, adoption would become more accessible, and people will be more cautious about their actions and choices rather than casual abortions. 


I believe that the logic of anti-abortion is contradictory in Conservatives. According to a survey of more than 70,000 abortions by U.S. Abortion Statistic in 2018, 20% of women chose to abort because of “social or economic reasons”("U.S. Abortion Statistic", 2019). The medical insurance, social security, and welfare that children need after they are born to consume government resources. If the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it would mean that there will be a need to improve previously existing public policy issues regarding things like insurance and health reform. Therefore, I believe that more states should adopt policies similar to the Reproductive Health Act. If they do so, they will be prepared if Roe v. Wade does get overturned, and they will also greatly benefit women’s safety and rights regarding abortions. Since the policy window of health insurance is temporarily closed, if the problem of heartbeat bills could not be resolved recently, it could end up like the Clinton Initiative has no clear consensus about which way to move. The process of policy change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary because it needs to have things coupled and bound with rationality. Therefore, I think the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade and resolve other related policy issues before the next policy window opens.