US state criminalises abortion ‘before most women realise they’re pregnant’

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Moya Crockett
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The bill has been described as the most restrictive abortion law in the States – and Republicans hope it could lead to women’s constitutional reproductive rights being overturned. 

The US state of Iowa has approved a law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Republican lawmakers voted in favour of passing the so-called “heartbeat bill” on Wednesday. It stipulates that any women seeking a termination will be required to have an ultrasound to see if the foetus has a heartbeat. If a foetal heartbeat can be detected, the woman will be blocked from having an abortion.

Ultrasounds can routinely detect foetal heartbeats as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Many women do not realise they are pregnant for six weeks or more – if their periods are irregular, for example, or if they attribute their early symptoms to other causes such as stress. For this reason, critics of heartbeat bills say that they will make abortions illegal before most women even know they’re pregnant.

Elizabeth Nash, a spokesperson for the US sexual and reproductive health policy group the Guttmacher Institute, told the BBC that the Iowan bill was “the most restrictive abortion ban in the country”.

Nash and other campaigners and members of the Democratic Party in Iowa have suggested that the bill could even be unconstitutional. They say it may be used to violate Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court ruling that granted women the right to terminate pregnancies until a foetus is viable.

Since a six-week-old foetus could not survive outside of the womb, Iowa’s heartbeat bill would appear to fly in the face of Roe v Wade. 

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has not yet said whether she will sign the bill into law 

Erin Davison-Rippey, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, told The New York Times: “This bill is dangerous, it is unconstitutional and it is just unconscionable.”

She added the most abortions in Iowa would be illegal under the new measure, which includes exemptions for victims of rape and incest. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, more than 90% of abortions carried out in the state in 2016 were performed after six weeks of pregnancy.

Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa, has the ability to veto the bill at its final stage before it is passed into law. 

She has not yet said whether she will sign the bill, but she has reiterated through a spokesperson that she is “100% pro-life and will never stop fighting for the unborn” – indicating that she supports the measure. 

Supporters of reproductive rights organisation Planned Parenthood in the US 

If Reynolds does sign the bill, it will likely be challenged in court for potentially infringing on the constitutional right to abortion laid out for women in Roe v Wade. But perhaps most alarmingly of all, this doesn’t appear to be a major source of concern for some Republican lawmakers: in fact, quite the opposite.

While debating the legislation this week, Iowa Republicans said they hope the law will face a legal challenge, so that it can advance to the US Supreme Court. Donald Trump has appointed more conservative federal judges since becoming president, which means the anti-choice argument may be heard more sympathetically than in previous years.

“I would love for the United States Supreme Court to look at this bill and have this as a vehicle to overturn Roe v Wade,” said Republican Senator Jake Chapman.

The bill isn’t the first attempt to drastically curtail women’s reproductive rights in the US. In August 2017, Texas passed a law that stripped abortion coverage from all healthcare insurance policies, meaning that women seeking a termination would have to pay up-front for extra coverage.

In October, meanwhile, the Trump administration backed a bill that would criminalise all abortions in the US after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill, known as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, has yet to pass the US Senate.

Images: Getty Images