The Heartbeat Bill: What does it mean?

An in-depth look at the Heartbeat Bill
Posted at 5:53 PM, Dec 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-10 11:09:07-05

Lawmakers in Ohio passed a ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, sparking fierce public debate about the constitutionality and morality of the law. 

The bill passed through Ohio's House and Senate, and now awaits the signature of Gov. John Kasich before becoming law. The law will likely face legal battles in state and federal courts because it challenges the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. 

NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, a reproductive rights advocacy group, said in a statement that the Heartbeat Bill would ban abortion before most women know they're pregnant.

"The unconstitutional six-week abortion ban, known as the 'Heartbeat Bill,' would block access to safe and legal abortion before most women even know they’re pregnant," the statement read. "The amendment has no exceptions in the bill for rape, incest, or to protect the health of the woman and would criminalize doctors who perform abortion procedures, regardless of the reason."

Supporters of the bill say President-elect Donald Trump is expected to appoint a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court to fill the seat opened by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

"A new president, new Supreme Court appointees change the dynamic, and there was consensus in our caucus to move forward," Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, told the Columbus Dispatch. "I think it has a better chance than it did before." 

Specifics of the law

The bill, dubbed the Heartbeat Bill, would make it a fifth-degree felony for physicians to perform an abortion without checking for a fetal heartbeat or after it has been detected. The felony is punishable by up to a year in prison, and the doctor may face civil lawsuits from the mother. 

In addition to the criminal implications on physicians, the measure would establish the Joint Legislative Committee on Adoption Promotion and Support. Included is a caveat that marks a $100,000 budget item for the development of the committee, according the Columbus Dispatch. Gov. Kasich could veto the bill based on budgetary concerns. 

The language of the bill includes no provisions for women to undergo abortions in the case of rape, incest or if the pregnancy endangers their life.

Current abortion laws

The following are the current abortion laws as of Sept. 1, summarized by the Guttenmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive rights.

  • An abortion must be performed by a licensed physician.
  • A woman must receive state-directed  counseling 24-hours prior to the operation. The Guttenmacher Institute says this counseling is designed to discourage abortion. 
  • Public funding is only available to cover abortions in case of rape, incest or if the woman's life is endangered by the pregnancy. 
  • The mother must undergo an ultrasound to check for fetal heartbeat. 
  • Partial-birth abortions are banned.
  • If the fetus is viable, abortion is prohibited except in cases that endanger the life of the mother.

Heartbeat Bills in other states

Similar laws banning abortions have come under harsh legal contest in other states. North Dakota's legislature passed a bill that would also ban the operation after the detection of a heartbeat. The law was struck down by the North Dakota Supreme Court. The Federal Supreme Court refused to revisit the case, essentially blocking the bill from becoming law, according the Bismarck Tribune.

The legal battles over the Heartbeat Bill in North Dakota have proved costly to the state. In April, the Bismarck Tribune reported that the state was mandated to pay $245,000 in attorney's fees after a losing a challenge to the bill. 

North Dakota lawmakers said in January the state had spent more than $320,000 on abortion litigation since 2012. In 2013 and 2015 the state budgeted $400,000 annually for abortion litigation. 

Roe v. Wade

The landmark Supreme Court case established legal rights for women seeking abortions in 1973. The ruling affirmed the legality of a woman's right to have an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects the right to privacy.

The Supreme Court decision allowed women to have abortions during the duration of their pregnancy, but left room for state's to regulate abortion laws during the second and third trimesters. Ohio's Heartbeat Bill would affect women in the first trimester. 

Pregnancy facts

At five to six weeks pregnant, a basic heartbeat and circulatory system begin to develop, according to Planned Parenthood, a global provider of reproductive healthcare and education. 

When the basic heartbeat develops, the embryo is less than one fifth of an inch long. Small buds for arms and legs begin to form, as does the neural tube. The neural tube later becomes the brain, spinal cord and major nerves. During this time, the umbilical cord also begins to develop, according to information provided by the organization. 

Abortion statistics

The Ohio Department of Health compiles annual statistics on abortions, which has been declining by about 920 operations per year since 2001.

  • In 2015, there were a total of 19,765 abortions performed on in-state residents, which is down from 26,322 in 2010. 
  • There were only 24 complications during the operation in the entire state.
  • Nearly 53 percent of abortions took place before the ninth week of pregnancy, and 32 percent before 12 weeks. 
  • The vast majority, 79 percent, of women who received an abortion have never been married. 
  • Additionally, 61 percent of women were aged 21 to 29 when they received the operation. 
  • A large portion, 35 percent, of the abortions in the state were performed in Cuyahoga County.