The rush of Republican-controlled states to mount a challenge to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion nationwide has sparked confusion about what these new laws actually do. Here’s what you need to know.
Ten states have tightened restrictions on abortions this year, and similar measures are pending in other states. The new laws have prompted questions about whether women who have abortions could be punished and why some of the pieces of legislation are called “heartbeat bills,” among other topics.
These restrictions generally are meant to provoke legal challenges that ultimately elevate the issue to the Supreme Court.
“I have prayed my way through this bill,” said Alabama state Rep. Terri Collins, a Republican who sponsored that state’s abortion ban, on Tuesday. “This is the way we get where we want to get eventually.”
Now that two Trump-appointed justices are on the Supreme Court, social conservatives see potential for a reversal of the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade – although the court tends to make incremental changes to its interpretation of law, instead of dramatically overturning precedent.
New York and Vermont, meanwhile, have enacted protections of abortion rights.
So, why is everyone talking about Alabama’s new law?
The bill signed Wednesday by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, prohibits abortion in almost every circumstance and is considered the most restrictive abortion law in the country. The legislation makes exceptions only for the health of the mother and for fetuses with “fatal anomalies” that make them unlikely to survive outside the womb. Rape and incest are not exceptions to Alabama’s ban.
Which state most recently passed an abortion law?
Missouri’s Republican-controlled Senate voted early Thursday to ban abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. The state’s House is scheduled to vote on the bill by Friday. If the bill passes, it will await the signature of Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican who has said the bill would make Missouri “one of the strongest pro-life states in the country.”
Like with the law in Alabama, rape and incest would not be exceptions to the ban in Missouri.
Can a woman who has an abortion be punished?
The laws in Alabama and Missouri specifically exempt women from being criminally liable, said Katherine Kraschel, the executive director of Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School.
Georgia’s new bill, she said, is less clear because it defines a fetus or embryo as an unborn child, but other provisions of Georgia law protect the rights of pregnant women.
Can a health-care provider who performs an abortion be punished?
Alabama’s bill explicitly states that women are exempt from criminal and civil liability. Instead, the law targets doctors, who can be prosecuted for performing an abortion, a felony punishable by up to 99 years imprisonment.
Carol Sanger, professor at Columbia Law School, said such penalties on doctors were “just another way to make women frightened” and create “more disincentives for physicians and residents to take up this practice.”
The Georgia law also says that doctors who perform abortions will be prosecuted, but is more vague about women.
The measure could not be used to successfully prosecute women, according to Planned Parenthood’s Staci Fox. But if a woman had a miscarriage, she could be pulled into an investigation looking at whether someone performed an illegal abortion on her.
“You don’t want a woman to be forced to prove how she lost her baby,” said Sanger.
Georgia’s law does not unequivocally say that women are exempt, but legal experts point to other areas of Georgia’s penal code which have specific defenses for women, including those who miscarry.
Why are some of these abortion bans called “heartbeat bills?”
Some bills, like the one in Georgia, prohibit abortion after the detection of what the bills call the fetal heartbeat, which usually happens about six weeks into pregnancy. This time period is about two weeks after a woman’s missed period, when many women do not yet know they are pregnant.
Supporters of this type of abortion ban refer to the legislation as “heartbeat bills,” while many abortion rights activists say the term is inaccurate because an embryo’s heart has not fully formed at that point.
An ultrasound will usually show electric activity in an embryo’s forming heart at about six weeks of pregnancy, said Jen Villavicencio, an OB/GYN and member of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She said although that activity is not the same as a heartbeat that pumps blood, she often uses the term “heartbeat” with her patients at that point because they are familiar with that terminology.
Villavicencio said it technically is an inaccurate description.
“I think that when you are legislating biology in this way, you need to be really, really precise,” she said.
Why are some people objecting to the six-week cutoff written into these “heartbeat bills?”
Doctors date a pregnancy from the first day of a woman’s last period, not from the date when she had sexual intercourse. Most women are at least four weeks pregnant when they discover the pregnancy, Villavicencio said.
Many women do not realize it until the fifth or sixth week, she said, especially if they did not expect to become pregnant. Women are taught to suspect pregnancy if they miss their period, but other factors – like stress, obesity or new medications – can also disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle.
How likely is emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy, as an alternative to abortion?
Over-the-counter morning-after pills generally prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, Villavicencio said, although the pills are much less effective in women who weigh more than 170 pounds. Emergency contraception that requires a prescription should be taken within five days of sexual contact, Villavicencio said.
Women who want to avoid becoming pregnant, she said, “have a very tight timeline to access emergency contraception over the counter.”
Does banning abortion reduce the rate of abortion?
Not significantly. Countries with total or partial bans have an abortion rate of 37 in 1,000 people, while 34 in 1,000 people have abortions in countries with no restrictions on it, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advocates for abortion rights.
Expanding access to contraception, however, does correlate with lower rates of abortion, the Guttmacher Institute says. A study by Washington University in St. Louis found in 2012 that giving women free birth control reduces abortion rates by 62 to 78 percent, compared to the national rate.
The Washington Post’s Lindsey Bever, Ariana Eunjung Cha, Carol Eisenberg, Laura Helmuth and Josh White contributed to this report.
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