Heartbeat Bill: An Infringement Upon the Right to Choose

American Horror Story is no longer a mere fictional television show, it is a reality for women in the United States. A country, put on a pedestal for its liberal laws and democratic attitude, has taken a turn with the rise of the extreme right-wing.

Since 2010, new state laws have been passed in various parts of the US, making abortions physically inaccessible to women. These laws have reduced the number of abortion clinics in several states to one, due to frequent and unnecessary changes in the restrictions placed on them. The clinics that cannot afford such changes end up shutting down altogether.

When the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, it did not specify when abortions were legal. They vaguely decided to make it unconstitutional to outlaw them until the foetus is ‘viable’. Since scientists had not determined when that was, states exploited this ambiguity and passed specific week bans like (i) when a foetal heartbeat can be detected, (ii) when the foetus can experience the pain of the procedure and (iii) when the foetus has developed into a person. This sparked the pro-life vs pro-choice debate.

In May 2019, a law was passed, in Alabama, making abortions practically illegal for women. The sole exceptions made are if the mother’s life is at severe risk or if the abortion is carried out before six weeks into the pregnancy. The six-week rule is impractical as most women find out about their pregnancies only after those six weeks. The lack of other exceptions also implies that a woman who is HIV positive or has been impregnated by rape or incest would not be allowed to terminate her pregnancy. Moreover, a doctor carrying out this procedure could face 99 years in prison, so if he/she was to be prosecuted under this law in 2019, he would get out in 2118. The rapist, however, can get out after three months.

Pro-life activists support this legislation out of the belief that it addresses an important human rights issue: the right to life of the foetus. The bill, however, is not about protecting an unborn child, but about control over a woman’s body. Most importantly, it acts as an infringement on a woman’s right to life itself. In fact the High Court at Calcutta, in India, a country ostensibly more backward than the United States, brilliantly explains why a practical blanket ban on abortions is truly the infringement of a woman’s right to life, and not the foetus’, in the case of Suparna Debnath v. State of West Bengal.

In this case, The Honourable Acting Chief Justice of the Court, Mr Justice Somadder explained that a woman’s “sufferings include the sufferings of her child, whose compromised existence is inextricably linked with the mother. The role of the State in this regard is crucial; both for the well-being of the mother and that of her child.” Mr Justice Somadder added that the reasoning behind this proposition was that “[t]he mother’s personal life and liberty….is inextricably linked with that of the unborn child and will continue even after she gives birth to the child.” Therefore, any person who professes to care about the right to life of the foetus has to care about the right to life of its mother, for the foetus’ existence is, by all means, dependent on its mother. So, if one does not prioritise the woman’s life on the issue of abortion in certain circumstances or understand that the issue is a priori about a woman’s right to life, one only masquerades as ‘pro-life’, when, in fact, they only wish to have dominion over a woman’s body. And this is verily the case with the supporters of the proposed Alabama law.

The ban is a classic case of a problem-solution mismatch. A government that has failed to strengthen its gun laws, to protect children from mass shootings and has separated immigrant families, is now pretending to care about ‘young and innocent lives’. Currently, Alabama has an F in its status of women’s health and has the highest infant mortality rate. If it were pro-children, the government of Alabama would be working towards increasing the standard of living in the state through measures such as improving the status of women’s health, lowering the infant mortality rates and allocating more resources towards public schools. Instead of adopting policies that keeps people trapped in poverty for generations, because of being forced to support another human being without having the means to do so, the government should to provide comprehensive sex education, free birth control and contraception.

Moreover, many a time there is a substantial risk that a child, if born, would suffer from deformities and diseases. Their treatment not only takes a financial toll but also a mental toll on the parents. Often, parents cannot afford the treatment. Such a birth especially hurts when the child ends up dying only a few years later. The effects on a woman’s physical and mental health, strength, and life because of carrying a specially-abled child full term is an avoidable cost. A woman’s suffering is not only limited to her pain and agony. As explained above, it is interlinked to her child’s suffering too, as the child’s right to life is parasitic. This, however, does not go to say that the parents loved their child any less.

A popular justification for anti-abortion laws has been: ‘protecting women’s health’. However, abortion is no danger to their health. Abortion, carried out by a doctor, has a mortality rate of 0.00073%, which is the lowest of all medical procedures. The law will drive women to now undertake unsafe abortions. As defined by the WHO, “unsafe abortion is a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards or both.” These abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide.

Many pro-lifers argue that a woman who doesn’t wish to raise the child can give the child up for adoption. However, there are certain problems attached to this. Firstly, there are already too many kids waiting to be adopted, trapped in America’s faulty foster care system. The system comes with its own set of problems: assault by foster parents, lack of access to basic amenities. Secondly, women often do not know whether their baby will be cared for and must live in the perpetual guilt of negative possibilities. It is due to this that women are unable to give a baby up for adoption, a baby they carried to full term.

The domino effect of the Alabama bill has already spread to multiple states, some following suit and some still considering it. Beyond this, the bill and the conservative judges in the Supreme Court will now have the power to overturn Roe v. Wade making abortion illegal all over the country. But America isn’t the only country affected by these laws. In 2017, President Trump reinstated and expanded a policy called the ‘global gag rule’. This rule states, that any overseas organisation which receives US global health funding, cannot even mention abortion as part of their counselling or education programs.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,492 Americans, 67% say abortion should be legalised in all or most cases. Women who live in places where abortions are illegal are known to be arrested by police in cases of miscarriage, due to the police believing it to be a conscious attempt to abort. Recently, in Alabama, a pregnant woman who got shot in the stomach was arrested by the police, under similar justifications. From grassroots to the global level, a trend has followed suit, wherein women are being subjected to harsher realities. A voice against these draconian abortion laws made anywhere in the world, be it Ireland or the USA, should be raised by all, irrespective of gender. These regressive laws have no place in any progressive society.


Devyani Arora

I am a nineteen-year-old student in Delhi University, pursuing bachelor's in commerce. You will find me having an existential crisis almost every two days and listening to The Local Train on loop.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.