Opinion: Scientists oppose six-week abortion ban in ‘hearbeat’ bill



The Georgia State House of Representatives and a State Senate committee recently approved House Bill 481, the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill that would effectively ban abortions after six weeks. In the Senate Science and Technology committee, the bill passed 3-to-2 along both partisan and gender lines, with all three “Yes”’ votes coming from Republican men. HB 481 is not designed to help mothers and children, but rather poses a threat to women’s health and autonomy. It is based on scientifically inaccurate information and suppresses the dignity and well-being of Georgia women.

For starters, the bill uses inaccurate and misleading language with the term “heartbeat.” At six weeks, the fetus is about eight-to-10 millimeters long – smaller than your pinky nail. The “heartbeat” refers to the thickening of an embryonic yolk sac, called a fetal pole, which at six weeks can produce a motion on a vaginal ultrasound. It is this fetal pole rhythmic activity that is termed a “heartbeat.” At this point the fetus does not yet have a brain, spinal cord, or any chance of viability outside the womb. The lack of scientific rigor in the bill is exemplified by its reference in Section 1-2(11) to “The American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology” – a nonexistent organization. As women and scientists, we believe it is important to use language that is medically accurate, sourced from reliable institutions, and not designed to deceive or stoke emotional outrage.

Banning abortion at this early stage of pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s right to reproductive choice, as well as to her health. Many women do not even realize they are pregnant at six weeks. Even if they find out shortly beforehand, they will be forced to make a rushed decision about an incredibly personal issue, possibly without the chance to consult with their partner, family, or medical counselors.

Moreover, before six weeks, it can be difficult to determine if a pregnancy will develop dangerous complications. For example, six weeks is often too early to detect an ectopic pregnancy, which is one that develops outside the uterus. Such a pregnancy can’t proceed normally; the fetus will not survive, and the growing tissue may cause life-threatening bleeding if left untreated. Treatment in this case necessarily means terminating the pregnancy. Thus, doctors wouldn’t be able to intervene to protect the health of their patient until the situation became life-threatening.

Finally, while the bill makes exceptions for rape and incest, it would require a woman to file a police report. Given that an estimated 65 percent of rapes go unreported, it is likely that many women would opt to obtain an abortion through illegal and unsafe means. The requirement to file a police report would place an even heavier burden on the victim of a deeply traumatic experience. As a direct result of this bill, women would face unnecessary trauma and possible long-term damage to their health.

There is also a sinister political motive to HB 481. Similar bills have been introduced in state legislatures all over the country, including in North Dakota, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Minnesota and Tennessee. Most have not become law, and those that passed have all been ruled unconstitutional in the courts. However, anti-abortion advocates are continuing to push these bills in the hopes that one of them, like HB 481, will make it to the Supreme Court, where the judicial makeup is becoming more conservative.

If a “heartbeat bill” were to reach the Supreme Court, it would provide an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. While the chances of this happening in Georgia are slim, the ensuing litigation would waste taxpayer dollars and state resources that would be better used to improve health care in rural parts of the state.

If legislators truly cared about women and children in Georgia, they would be prioritizing very different legislation. Georgia is believed to have the highest maternal death rate in the United States, although the true rate is unknown due to lack of accurate reporting. Furthermore, 24 percent of children in Georgia live in poverty, and over 200,000 have no health insurance. For people who claim to “value life,” Gov. Brian Kemp and his supporters are proposing very little to improve the lives of the state’s children and their mothers. The bill could come up for a state Senate vote as early as this week. We urge legislators to vote against HB 481 and preserve a woman’s constitutional right to make her own reproductive choices.