Protecting the Heartbeat of America
By David H. Landon
I’ve always believed that science would eventually play a critical role in shrinking the period of time that a civilized society would allow for a legal abortion. Poll after poll shows that when the unborn child is viewed as a small person rather than a mass of cells, a large majority believes that abortion is unacceptable. For the last 40 years, on the authority of the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, the window for a legal abortion has ended at the beginning of the third trimester. It was based upon medical opinion as to when the unborn child was considered viable outside of the womb. Twenty-four weeks was chosen as the arbitrary date of viability. At that time there were very few examples of babies surviving an earlier birth. Advances in medical science have now pushed that date back.
In the last few years there are many cases of babies surviving gestation periods of just under 22 weeks. In Germany a premature birth occurred at 21 weeks and five days. The child survived and is healthy and living at home. Here in the U.S., a successful birth at 21 weeks and six days occurred last year. The child is now 18 months old and thriving. Unfortunately, even as science increases the odds for premature babies surviving earlier and earlier, there is no way to easily modify the calendar created in 1973 by the court in Roe v. Wade.
There is legislation pending in the Ohio legislature which challenges the current calendar of when abortion is legal under Roe v. Wade. In June, the Ohio House passed HB 125, known as the “Heartbeat Bill,” with a 54-43 vote. The bill has not yet been taken up by the Ohio Senate, but pro-life groups are presently attempting to pressure the Senate into acting on the bill. This bill would require physicians to examine the mother prior to any abortion for a fetal heartbeat. The legislation would then ban abortions for any fetus where a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
How dramatic would such legislation be on the Roe window for legal abortions? A baby’s heartbeat can be detected as early as eight weeks, but it is almost always detectible by 10 weeks. The window for a legal abortion would shrink from 24 weeks to around 10 weeks. The Heartbeat Bill throws out the concept of viability outside the womb, as that is no longer the critical factor in determining when abortions are permitted. The presence of a fetal heartbeat now brings nearly all of the rights to the unborn child that would be enjoyed by any U.S. citizen. Only a situation where the continued presence of the fetus would jeopardize the life of the mother can trump the right of the fetus to be born once a heartbeat is detected.
Additionally, the Heartbeat Bill attempts to bestow rights on the unborn child as an “unborn human individual” defined as an individual organism of the species Homo sapiens from fertilization until live birth. The language in the bill makes a strong confirmation of the personhood of the unborn.
The legislation is now in the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate, which has not been in a rush to address the issue. In fact, the legislation has received some pushback from the Ohio Right to Life organization. Fearing that court challenges to the Heartbeat Bill could overturn other pro-life protections in the state, Ohio Right to Life was reluctant at first to support the Heartbeat Bill. They seem to now be on board for what, if passed, will be the most aggressive challenge to Roe v. Wade, at least in terms of reducing the period of time during which abortions can legally be performed.
There have been over 53 million abortions in the U.S. since the 1973 Supreme Court decision. The rate of abortion hit a high watermark in 1990 with approximately 1,608,600 abortions that year. That number has leveled off to an estimated 1,200,000 for 2010. Despite the decline, the U.S. birthrate for 2011 is estimated to be 13.83 births per 1000 people, an all-time low. That is barely above the rate needed to sustain a positive population growth. While the reasons for declining U.S. birthrate are more complicated than simply the high number of abortions, abortion is a factor.
Is this legislation unfair? I’m sure some will see it that way. But for a large segment of the population which sees abortion as the destruction of an innocent life, it is a welcome step towards protecting the unborn. For those women involved in an unwanted pregnancy, although it reduces the window for when a legal abortion is permitted, it does not make all abortions illegal. I understand the slippery slope argument. If today 10 weeks is the deadline, how long will it be before abortions are completely outlawed? They argue that it’s an incredibly personal and difficult decision. They argue that 10 weeks to make that decision is simply not enough time. But to the fetus that now has a heartbeat, it is unfair to make the time for his or her demise any longer.
The response to those arguments is that 24 weeks was an arbitrary point in time handed down by the 1973 court decision. To establish a new time period in which an abortion must be legally accomplished may be seen as equally arbitrary. However the justifications are based not on the nebulous concept of viability, but rather on an actual point in time when the new person growing in the womb has a heartbeat. There is something entirely more civilized about protecting a heartbeat.
David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.