This was a "compromise". The original proposal was to ban abortion after 6 weeks. Wary of the national firestorm that erupted last year after Virginia tried to require an intrusive transvaginal procedure, proponents revised the bill to specify that a fetal heartbeat should be detected by abdominal ultrasound or other external methods, which are not feasible at six weeks.
The earliest a fetal heartbeat can typically be heard / seen by abdominal ultrasound is 12 weeks.
The law contradicts the limit established by Supreme Court decisions, which give women a right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy.
Even some anti-abortion leaders called the measure a futile gesture.
Most of the right-wing Republicans are ..... (ahem) "informed"..... by an Evangelical or Roman Catholic theological interpretation of scripture.
So, when did the heartbeat become the scriptural basis for determining life?
Everything I read in scripture about life is about breath. God's breath. Ruach. The Spirit of life.
From both stories of Creation in Genesis - God's breath swirled over chaos and brought it into order AND God's breath animated the life of Adam and Eve - to the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones - Ezekiel 37:1-14 - to Jesus dying on the cross and "giving up his last breath", to the gift of the Resurrection at Pentecost - everything involves breath.
When a baby is born, the required APGAR score includes pulse rate AND breathing.
When a person is found unconscious, first-responders are trained to check for a pulse AND breath sounds. When efforts begin to save the life, cardiac compression AND mouth-to-mouth resuscitation are required.
When a person is "pronounced" dead, the legal document filled out by the doctor or nurse requires documentation of the absence of a pulse/heart beat AND breath sounds.
I suppose the 'heartbeat' argument has its own logic - if you buy into the idea that "life begins at conception".
NEWSFLASH: There is to heart to beat at conception. At that point it's just a collection of cells.
The language of Roe v. Wade, allowing abortion before 24 weeks gestation, is predicated on the understanding that, at that point, life is sustainable outside the womb. That is, the heart may be developed but the lungs have not yet developed enough for the fetus to breathe on its own.
Or, at least, the fetus would have enough lung development to be able to receive medical assistance to support life - i.e, BREATH - in order to have some kind of QUALITY OF LIFE after birth.
Why? Because we need heart and lungs - pulse and breath - to have life.
So, why the focus on the heartbeat?
Despite the obvious emotional appeal, it is no doubt because a heartbeat is an easy enough measurement to discern in utero - after approximately 12 weeks. However, it's only one of two measurements of "life". It's the heart AND the lungs. A pulse AND breath sounds.
The complexity of this issue was brought into focus by the case of Tamara Mann, a Jewish woman living in Ohio and the case of an "optional" vs "voluntary" abortion. The 13 week fetus she was carrying had been determined, on routine sonogram, to be seriously deformed:
He (the doctor) saw me, gestured for me to come to his office, and referred to the ailing life in my belly as a baby. "This isn't good," he whispered. "It's really not. Let me show you." He was kind but clear. "The organs are not inside the baby's body. The hands and feet are curled, actually one limb seems to be stunted or missing. The neck isn't right. This really doesn't look good."A week later, her own doctor called her with the news:
"Tamara, I have looked at the scans and I have shown the scans to doctors in my office. I want to tell you that we all agree that this fetus is not compatible with life. It will not survive the pregnancy. You should get it removed immediately. The longer you wait the more risks are involved."She was, of course, devastated, and sought the advice of her Rabbi:
The idea of "removing" my baby, my fetus, while its heart was still beating was simply unbearable. Was it living? Was it still growing? Would I be stopping the heartbeat, cutting short its life? And what do I do after the operation? Do I bury it? I didn't understand what I had inside of me and I didn't understand what I should do. I called a dear friend, an Orthodox rabbi, who I knew would be both compassionate and firm. After consulting with his rabbi, he said the case was clear. In situations where the mother's health is at risk and the fetus (he explicitly said fetus) is not viable, Jewish law errs on the side of the mother's health. I should have the operation and I should not bury the fetus -- it is not a life.The situation was far from over, however. The hospital called the next morning:
"Because your fetus still has a heartbeat, it has been our experience that insurance companies in Ohio will not cover the costs of the operation. They consider it an optional abortion. Our office suggests that you go to Planned Parenthood, which will only run you $800. If you go to the hospital it will be over $10,000."here. The author, Tamara Mann, asks: "What is going on here? Why have so many people settled on the heartbeat as the best marker of life in-utero? This is not science. It is the tyranny of a metaphor." She says:
Life is not instantaneous. It is an arduous, miraculous, process. So many steps have to align -- so much has to go exactly right for a baby to take its first breath. When we start to think of life this way, the pro-choice/pro-life debates seem to me almost cruel. Neither accurately explains the moral nuance of each individual's situation or honors the complexity of creation. I wish we could reframe the debate and talk more about what it would mean to honor the sanctity of life. To honor the actual lives of pregnant women and the potential lives they hold within them.I share Tamara's wish.
Here's a simplistic response to the simplistic idea of a heartbeat defining life: Don't want an abortion? Don't have one. But, please don't hold a woman's life captive to the "tyranny of a metaphor" and embrace the complexity of everything that makes up life.
Here's a more complex response to those who oppose abortion: Don't want an abortion? Work to eradicate the reasons many women have an abortion: Poverty. Lack of quality education. Lack of access to quality medical care. Domestic violence.
In the midst of the current high-testosterone debate about reproductive rights - everything from contraception to third-trimester abortions - I wish we would all take a breath and reframe the debate to talk about what it would mean to honor the sanctity of life - from womb to tomb.
Given the fact that so much about the debate over reproductive rights - like the sequester and the filibuster on cabinet nominations - is based less on getting to a workable solution and more on proving which side can "win", taking a breath and reframing the debate may prove to be as "futile a gesture" as the Arkansas law to prohibit abortion after 12 weeks.
At this point, however, I think there's ample and sound biblical foundation for it - allowing the breath of God to breathe over the chaos of this time and bring us some inspiration to honor and respect all life.
That's a choice we all have.
And, it's one we can all make.