'Heartbeat bills' reveal extremist anti-abortion view that values unborn over women

Kirsten Powers

“Fetal heartbeat” laws are all the rage right now.

Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi have passed bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Similar bills are working their way through the legislatures of South Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama.

Of the bills passed, only Georgia allows an exception for rape and incest; in Alabama the sponsor of a bill that would ban nearly all abortions threatened to kill the legislation if rape or incest exceptions were added.

These laws effectively outlaw abortion at six weeks, just two weeks after a missed period, a point at which many women don’t even realize they are pregnant. The likelihood that a preteen or teenage girl would know she is pregnant in time to beat this cutoff is almost nonexistent. Indeed, the only reason an 11-year-old Ohio girl recently impregnated by a rapist wouldn’t be forced to give birth is because the law ins't in effect yet and its implementation will likely be delayed by legal challenges.

Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signs legislation banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected in Atlanta on May 7, 2019.

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Abortion-rights opponents believe this is just moral consistency. If an embryo or fetus is a person, then ending that life is murder. Nobody should be murdered, ergo an 11-year-old who has been raped should be forced to carry her pregnancy to term.

See, a not so funny thing happens when you blindly follow ideology — or in this case, theology — to its natural end point. You become an extremist. If your principles inextricably lead you to the conclusion that, for example, a teenager impregnated by her father should be forced to give birth to that child, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

I long valued intellectual consistency above all. It was a theoretically laudable trait until it gave way to a myopic moral certainty that created troubling blind spots. This damaging predilection long predated my conversion to Christianity, which turned a tiny spark of certitude into a raging inferno of unyielding self-righteousness.

'I wanted to be a real Christian'

A little backstory: More than a decade ago, I came to faith while attending an evangelical church in New York City with my then-boyfriend. After this, I followed a winding path of spiritual searching during which time I steeped myself in evangelical theology. In the end, I returned to the Catholic Church, the faith of my beloved grandparents. Throughout this period, I was surrounded by people who believe that one could not be a "real Christian" if they weren't "pro-life." 

I wanted to be a real Christian.

Though I didn't see much in what I read in the Bible to justify this litmus test, I was new to the faith and trusted those who seemed more theologically knowledgeable. While I came to describe myself as "pro-life," I felt frustrated by how disinterested the people around me were in actually helping women reduce abortions. I believed, as I do now, that to reduce abortions, overturning Roe v. Wade was not the answer. What was needed was providing women the resources they need, which at a minimum involves universal health care, something most abortion critics oppose because of their fealty to Republican ideology. The costs of maternal care and a pregnancy alone could bankrupt a woman with no health insurance.

Anti-abortion pregnancy centers, which exist to talk women out of having an abortion, know this well. The first thing they do for a pregnant woman considering abortion is get her on Medicaid if she is eligible, so that her pregnancy health care will be covered. Yet these same people invariably support Republican politicians who are working to dismantle Obamacare and oppose Medicaid expansion, government funding for child care and anti-poverty programs.

I regret my black-and-white approach

The focus of the “real Christians” around me was not on giving women the support they needed to prevent pregnancy through access to contraception or on developing economic support for poor women who can’t afford another child in an already struggling family. I could not make common cause with them. Until, it turned out, when it came to so-called late-term abortion, generally understood to be abortion after 20-22 weeks. 

I wrote recently about the importance of admitting when you have made a mistake, and this is one area where I wish I could press “delete” on some of my past columns. I was particularly vicious toward Planned Parenthood, despite my long support for the work they do to increase health care access for women. When it came to abortion later in pregnancy, I employed my now signature black-and-white thinking on a complicated topic that required more care.

In hindsight, I seemed convinced that abortion supporters didn’t appreciate the gravity of later-term abortion. But the opposite is true. Nobody understands this issue better than women who have actually had a late-term abortion. By listening to their stories, I’ve come to see that the tragedy of this procedure, sought in desperation, is well understood by the women receiving it.

Recently, I followed the outrage over a New York abortion law, which conservatives claim allows abortion even as the woman is giving birth, and the GOP’s failed attempt to pass the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” which would add specific penalties for actions already illegal under a prior law that received bipartisan support in 2002.

More about politics than protection

Many defenders of the redundant “Born Alive” act claim that if even one baby is not provided medical care after surviving an abortion, it is reason enough to beef up the law. But when it comes to far more American children being murdered by guns, many of the same people provide only “thoughts and prayers,” not legislation. I’m struggling to see the moral consistency here. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the sudden uptick in anti-abortion measures are more about the upcoming 2020 elections than any real interest in protecting innocent lives.

As for the New York law, the entire premise underlying the anti-abortion fury that erupted following its passage is that women routinely carry pregnancies for nine months and then during delivery order the doctor to abort the baby, for, well, no reason. What woman would do this? It’s theoretically possible, but is it really plausible that this is a regular occurrence

While abortion opponents paint the New York law as an abortion free-for-all, in fact the law allows for an abortion past 24 weeks only if a health care professional determines the life or health of the mother is at risk, or the fetus is not viable.

Abortion opponents frequently claim that the “health” exception to late-term abortion laws are just a ruse to allow women abortions whenever they want for any reason. But according to a statement this year by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, health issues that might require a woman to terminate a pregnancy late-term “include premature rupture of membranes and infection, preeclampsia, placental abruption and placenta accreta. Women in these circumstances may risk extensive blood loss, stroke and septic shock.”

Doctors, not the government, should be helping women decide what to do in these situations.

I care about all lives, including women

Am I still a “pro-life” Christian? My faith is as strong as ever, but today I'd say I’m like many Americans who see themselves both as pro-choice and pro-life. Personally, I don’t think I would have ever have had an abortion if I faced an unwanted pregnancy. But I know enough women who swore they were anti-abortion all the way up to the point when they saw the plus sign on that little white stick to know it’s pure hubris to say with certainty what decision I would have made.

What I do know for sure is that I care about all lives, and that includes the lives of women contemplating abortion. The anti-abortion movement pays lip service to caring for women, but what the recent spate of laws shows us is that in the end there is only one thing they care about: the embryo or fetus. The lives of young rape or incest victims are accepted as collateral damage, and women who want to protect their health are as cast sinister actors incapable of searching their own consciences for a way forward when a wanted pregnancy goes awry.

As troubling as these new moves by anti-abortion activists are, there is one upside. There is now perfect clarity on where the lines have been drawn, and the likelihood that this extremism will be embraced by the American people is close to zero.

Let the debate begin.

Kirsten Powers, a CNN news analyst, writes regularly for USA TODAY and is co-host of The Faith Angle podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @KirstenPowers

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Heartbeat bills' reveal extremist anti-abortion view that values unborn over women