Here’s why the rise in six-week abortion bans is such a massive problem

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Lauren Geall
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Abortion Rights protesters in Washington, D.C.

Six-week abortion bans, or ‘heartbeat bills,’ have now been passed in six states across the US – here’s why that’s such a big issue. 

In the post #MeToo era, you’d be forgiven for believing that women’s bodies will finally be treated with the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Across America, six states have now signed what are being termed as ‘heartbeat bills,’ which heavily restrict abortion after five or six weeks of pregnancy, despite most women not even realising they’re pregnant until around four or five weeks.

On Tuesday, Georgia became the sixth state to sign such a bill – joining Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota and Ohio.

The ban means that, once a doctor is able to detect a fetal heartbeat (something which usually occurs at five to six weeks of pregnancy), they will not be allowed to perform an abortion. If they do, they could face up to 99 years in prison. However, research has consistently shown us that restricting access to safe abortions does not lower abortion rates: rather, women will be forced to seek more dangerous termination methods. Indeed, botched abortions cause about 8 to 11% of all maternal deaths in countries where abortion is illegal, according to the Guttmacher Institute. This amounts to around 30,000 each year.

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Based on the premise that a heartbeat makes the fetus a legal ‘life,’ the bills actually rob women of control over their own bodies.

In response to the news, celebrities and activists alike have spoken out to share their disgust and show their support for female reproductive rights.

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The New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among those who took to Twitter to join the conversation, sharing her response above an article from CBS which broke the story.

““6 weeks pregnant” = 2 weeks late on your period,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

“Most of the men writing these bills don’t know the first thing about a woman’s body outside of the things they want from it,” she added. “It’s relatively common for a woman to have a late period + not be pregnant. So this is a backdoor ban.”

“For context, this kicks in within days of a typical at-home test working,” she continued. “If you were sexually assaulted (stress delays cycle), took a morning-after pill (throws off cycle), or have an irregular cycle, you‘d have no idea.”

Robin Marty, activist and author of Handbook for a Post Roe America – a guide for preparing for the possible end of legal abortion in America – spoke to Stylist about what this ban means for women across the US.

Here are just some of the reasons why these bans are such a big problem:

 They rob women of a choice  

At six weeks pregnant, the embryo is the size of a sweet pea. In fact, this is just two weeks after women might first realise they have missed their period, only if they are meticulously keeping track of their cycle. As Marty explained to Stylist, tracking isn’t really a solution to the problem. Even women who realise they are pregnant on the first day they miss their period may still be unable to access an abortion in time.

“It is quite literally impossible to make it into a clinic before the point in which an abortion would be illegal,” she says. “Even for those who diligently track their menstrual cycle and know to the day when they would be late, the act of actually booking an appointment, jumping through the state’s hurdles for obtaining care and then having the procedure is impossible.”

A protester holds a poster which reads "Keep Your Policies Off Your Body" promoting reproductive rights at the Woman's March in New York in January
A protester holds a poster promoting reproductive rights at the Woman’s March in New York in January

And it’s not just the timing which can cause a barrier to abortion, Marty explains. Insurance is another big issue.

“Many of the states proposing these bans are already low access states with overwhelmed clinics, some of them with just one clinic in total in their borders,” she explains. “They also have other barriers like not allowing insurance to cover abortion care or requiring multiple face to face meetings with a doctor with anywhere from 24 to more than 72 hours in between visits.”

She adds: “Because many of these bills are happening in the South and Southeast, they create a swath of states with no care available, meaning even just going to the next state over doesn’t mean that a person can access what should be legal care.

They put women at risk

“No bill that criminalises abortion will stop anyone from making this incredibly personal choice, but these laws will put more women at risk,” said Busy Phillips, when she spoke openly about her decision to have an abortion on her late night talk show Busy Tonight.

It’s true - under stricter abortion laws, there is still a high likelihood that women will continue to make the difficult decision to abort their pregnancies – just without the safety and support of professional medical staff. 

“The same states that have the least access to abortion now also have the highest rates of uninsured residents, the worst rates of maternal mortality and escalating issues with infant mortality,” Marty argues. 

“These are communities that without the resources to head somewhere else to obtain a termination will either seek to manage their own care - which could easily land them in jail - or give birth to an unwanted and unintended child putting both their lives and physical health in danger.” 

They will only make matters worse for disadvantaged communities

The introduction of six-week abortion bills may actually discourage doctors from choosing to practice or train in Georgia, worsening a problem that already exists; many counties across the state currently do not have an obstetrics provider at all.

On top of that, Georgia already has the highest maternal mortality rate in the US at 39.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, and it’s black women who are often disproportionately affected. That, Marty argues, will only worsen as a result of the bans.

“We already know from looking states where abortion has been restricted in our country that the impact is greatest on poor and especially communities of colour,” she says. 

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And poorer communities are also likely to be hit hard. Even if a woman has insurance, that doesn’t necessarily mean that abortion will be covered. And without insurance, the procedure can cost over $500.

This means that women who cannot raise the money within the short time period from which they find out that they are pregnant simply won’t be able to have abortions, effectively forcing them to give birth.

They present a scary challenge to Roe v Wade  

In the Roe v Wade case in 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled that access to abortion was encompassed under the constitutional right to privacy, therefore legalising abortion across America.

The precedent has since provided some form of protection for abortion rights across the US, but the six-week abortion bills may challenge this – if someone takes the bill to the Supreme Court, the conservative majority may be able to overturn Roe v Wade, or allow states to decide how many weeks they ban abortion from, as long as it is still legal in some capacity. 

A protestor disrupts proceedings at Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing.
A protestor disrupts proceedings at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. The new Supreme Court Justice is publicly against abortion, and activists fear he may overturn Roe v Wade

“I believe that when the Supreme Court does take up a case it will either overturn Roe and allow states to make abortion illegal if they choose, or keep Roe intact but allow states the opportunity to pass any law as long as abortion is technically still legal,” Marty explains. “And that’s exactly why these “heartbeat” bans exist. Both end results are the same.”

“The only silver lining to this is the idea that the end of Roe could re-energize our country and cause the public to fight back as we’ve seen recently in Ireland, El Salvador and other countries over the past few years,” she adds.

“The question is how many pregnant people must be physically harmed or jailed before the U.S. will wake up.”

Images: Getty


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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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