'Fetal heartbeat' laws divide America as fears grow that Roe v. Wade could be challenged in the Supreme Court

The year 2019 has seen four states — Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio — pass 'fetal heartbeat' laws which make abortions illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected


                            'Fetal heartbeat' laws divide America as fears grow that Roe v. Wade could be challenged in the Supreme Court

The year 2019 saw women's rights take quite the beating across the US.

Besides Alabama's Republican-controlled state senate passing what is undoubtedly the most restrictive abortion law in the US earlier this week, four other states — Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio — have passed bills making abortions illegal after a certain timeframe.

These bills have been widely termed as "fetal heartbeat" bills and make abortions illegal as soon as the fetus' heartbeat can be detected. The legislation is based on the conclusion that a human heartbeat is an indicator of a living person. 

Unsurprisingly, they have proven to be as divisive as they are contentious, even amongst the religious, where one would expect unequivocal support to any legislation which upholds so-called sanctity of life.

The legislation has already been slammed by Catholics for Choice, a pro-choice dissenting Catholic advocacy group who state their mission is to "serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman's moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health." 

While they have been rejected and publicly denounced as a non-Catholic organization by the likes of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Archdiocese of Mexico because of their stance, they have continued to advocate for access to abortion in the context of Catholic tradition.

In a statement to MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) addressing the fetal heartbeat laws, Sara Ratcliffe, the Vice President of the organization, said curtailing access to abortion based on a set of beliefs that so many in the country do not share "violates one of the central tenets of Catholic teaching...the deep respect for all life and equally for every person’s conscience."

Abortion has become quite a contentious issue in the country (Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

"Moral decision making, such as whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, must first and last be guided by each individual’s conscience," she argued. "As Catholics, we stand with our friends and families to offer support for the decision that is best for them and to follow their conscience where it leads. Legislators seeking to impose their morality on everyone in the state also serves as a violation of the religious liberty we hold dear, as Catholics and as Americans."

Ratcliffe said there wasn't a "single or official Catholic opinion on when life begins" and that, throughout Catholic tradition, scholars, saints, and ordinary Catholics have had differing beliefs about when a developing life becomes a person. 

She also pointed out how six in 10 US Catholic voters believe abortion can be a moral choice and asserted that a woman must be able and encouraged "to make the decision that is right for her about whether and when to have a child" as the "Catholic faith teaches that women are people with rights, responsibilities and a conscience that must guide her to make the best decision for herself in light of her circumstance and beliefs."

It was a stance that wasn't shared by the Pro-Life Action League, an anti-abortion organization who say their sole mission is to end abortion. Eric J. Scheidler, their executive director, told MEAWW that the fetal heartbeat laws "provide a teaching tool about human life in the womb."

"Few people realize that an unborn child's heart begins to beat within three weeks of conception," he said. "Feel your own heartbeat: that began within a few weeks of life, when you were a tiny embryo."

Many, however, still support blanket bans on abortions (Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scheidler also said he strongly opposed the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade which ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a fundamental "right to privacy" that protects a pregnant woman's liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion. 

He said he "strongly opposed" the ruling as it "stripped unborn human beings of their right to life" and that "overturning this judicial attack on human dignity is a major goal of the pro-life movement." He added that he would welcome other states passing heartbeat bills since this will make it more likely the Supreme Court will ultimately rule on these laws. 

While these fetal heartbeat laws may feel decisive, Roe v. Wade still offers hope as it mandated that, while the governments could "regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health," it also ruled that, under no circumstances could the government prohibit abortions during either the first or second trimester.

This has meant that the fetal heartbeat laws that have been successfully passed and signed into law in several states such as Arkansas, Iowa, and North Dakota have either been blocked by state or federal courts. 

The bills passed in Ohio and Alabama are expected to meet a similar fate, though this spate of fetal heartbeat laws does feel like a precursor to an inevitable challenge to Roe v. Wade that will fall before the conservative-majority Supreme Court in the coming months.