Implications of the Heartbeat Act

What you need to know:

  • She had no intention of straying from her career path. “I was very clear about what I wanted” she said in an interview. “I never pictured myself pregnant, much less leaving college. I wanted an abortion,” she said. 

In 1982, when Suzan then 19 years old and a second year student at the University of Texas, realised that she was pregnant after a one-night-stand, she said she knew exactly what she had to do. 
She had no intention of straying from her career path. “I was very clear about what I wanted” she said in an interview. “I never pictured myself pregnant, much less leaving college. I wanted an abortion,” she said. 

Plans abortion 
She called and scheduled an appointment with Planned Parenthood. In Texas, 40 years ago, the only roadblock Suzan faced was money. Not any more today. She did not ask her mother “not because my mum would judge me, but because I did not want to hurt her feelings. I thought maybe she would have been sad that I did not want to keep the baby.” 

Seeks help 
She, instead, turned to the owner of the bar that she and her friends hung out at for help and he gave her the $300 (about Shs1,080,000) she needed. She drove herself to the clinic, had the abortion, and went home. But for women in Texas today, the situation looks very different.  

New law 
The Heartbeat Act, now law in the state of Texas in the United States of America, though without challenges, prohibits abortion once a foetal heart is detected. Six weeks after a woman’s last normal menstrual period a doctor can detect a flicker of cardiac motion on a trans-vaginal ultrasound scan. The heartbeat is the universally recognised indicator of life. Proponents of the law say that it is a pro-life legislation that will save and protect lives from the beginning to the end. This law makes Texas the US state with the most extreme restrictions on abortions. Experts say that limiting a pregnant person’s choice this way can be detrimental to their mental health.

There are few exceptions under the new Texas law. Abortions are not allowed for women who get pregnant through rape or by an act of incest. The law also makes no exception for medical conditions that can complicate pregnancy, such as diabetes. Abortions may only be considered if the woman’s life is at risk, or the pregnancy would cause her major physical harm.
Reproductive rights advocates and doctors say the law, which prohibits abortion before many women know they are pregnant, amounts to a near-total ban on the procedure.  

It has also been dubbed “the forced pregnancy law”. The law is a direct challenge to a 1973 decision of the Supreme Court of the US that directed that states must allow abortion until the point of viability, which is normally between 24 and 28 weeks into the pregnancy. 

The Heartbeat Act is viewed by its opponents as unconstitutional. The Anti-abortion proponents hope that the Heartbeat Act will pave way for the Supreme Court to re-visit its earlier decision much as the Supreme Court does not review its decisions concerning state constitutional questions. 

Some reproductive rights groups argue that the term “heartbeat” is a misnomer since the foetus does not yet have a heart at six weeks’ gestation. The cardiac activity detectable at that time comes from a tissue called the foetal pole. The “foetal heartbeat” is more a legal term than a medical one, as the term foetus is not used in medical literature until the end of the tenth week of pregnancy, which is eight weeks after fertilisation. Before that the standard medical term is embryo.
Some critics of the law challenge the wording in the bill as misleading and inaccurate. To them it is not accurate to term the activity of the embryonic tubular heart a heartbeat. The cardiovascular system of the foetus at six weeks is actually composed of a group of cells with electrical activity and therefore very immature and cannot be considered part of a cardiovascular system.

In the US it is estimated that there are about 30,000 pregnancies from rape per year in adult women, although the number may be considerably higher because many women do not report rape. 

Post-traumatic stress 
Many victims receive little to no aftercare and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder following rape. They, as a result, find a decision to report sexual assault especially difficult so soon after the trauma of rape and the physical and mental trauma that they experience may be extended for a considerable period of time. Reproductive rights advocates, therefore, contend that the Heartbeat law in truth is a ban on abortions. 

It is also known that most women do not report sexual assault, and many times it is hard to bring an assault case to trial. Teenage girls are unlikely to report sexual assault, even though 74 percent of women who have had intercourse before the age of 14, and 60 percent of those who have had sex before the age of 15 report having had a forced sexual experience.
In some states, the law allows a man convicted of rape to seek custody of a child conceived through their crime. Activists fear that a victim of rape could find herself in a situation where she would be forced to bear a child of rape and then be forced to co-parent the child with her rapist.

Some women struggle after an abortion when they feel they lacked time to consider their options before going through it. They have problems coming to terms with an abortion if they have to make ad-hoc decisions. Women who are not rushed but make their decision with certainty might still go through a phase of grief.
Opponents of the new law are concerned that women will turn to illegal options for abortion if they are desperate and these abortions may be conducted by untrained people in unsafe and non-sterile environments, putting women at even greater risk.
To be continued   


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