"Heartbeat" Bills

What are "Heartbeat" Bills?

Fetal “Heartbeat” bills are designed to restrict women’s access to abortion after a “heartbeat,” or possible embryonic cardiac activity, is detectable. Most heartbeat bills identify 6 weeks gestation or 4 weeks post fertilization as the time when cardiac activity is detected, restricting abortion after this timeframe. This is not only in direct contrast to the legal standard established by Roe v. Wade, but also the fact that detectable cardiac activity is not the same as the presence of a functioning heart or heartbeat.[1] At 6 weeks, there is no “heart” that beats. The cardiac activity detected at this time is from a 4-milimeter wide tissue called the fetal pole.[2]

Women dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" to protest HB 481.

Where are they being passed?

Since they were introduced in 2011, this type of legislation has increasingly become the anti-abortion legislative measure of choice[3]. Almost 100 fetal heartbeat bills have been introduced in 25 states since 2011. North Dakota and Arkansas were the first states to pass this type of legislation in 2013. In 2019, Mississippi, Ohio, and Kentucky all passed and signed fetal heartbeat bills into law. The most recent proposed legislation was in the state of Georgia. The Georgia House Bill 481, otherwise known as “The Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act was introduced in 2019. HB 481 bans abortion upon detection of a “heartbeat” and gives full legal rights and protections to “natural persons” in utero.[4] Important to note is that legislators of HB 481 sought to use the existence of possible cardiac activity as a marker of life.[5] This timeframe is much earlier than the established medical standards for fetal viability, which is around 24 weeks. The “heartbeat” of the fetus was used to distinguish the fetus as an individual separate from the pregnant person, negating the dependence of the fetus on the mother during gestation.[6] The bill does not include an exception for rape or incest. The bill passed and was supposed to come into force on January 1, 2020, but a legal challenge Sistersong v. Kemp has been filed, and the battle continues to this day.[7]

How do they affect low-income women and women of color?

A group of protestors gathered outside of a Georgia Committee Room after a Georgia Senate panel approved an amended version of the measure HB481. 

When using a transvaginal ultrasound, a “heartbeat” can be detected at around 6-weeks’ gestation. Six weeks’ gestation is just shortly after most pregnant women miss their first menstrual cycle, so many women do not know that they are pregnant at this time.[8] Due to the shortened time frame, women need to be able to travel to a clinic and get together the money for the procedure within the time allowed. This bill will therefore disproportionally affect low-income women and women of color who cannot manage to get the funds in time to get to the clinics or have the procedure. Additionally, in Georgia, maternal mortality rates rank second worst in the country, with cardiovascular issues like cardiac arrest being the leading cause of death in childbirth.[9] With people of color, especially Black women, dying at the highest maternal mortality rates, forcing women to continue pregnancy until birth will affect women of color the most. Georgia politicians have made these issues worse by refusing to expand Medicaid, and the resulting funding shortfall has increased hospital closures in rural areas.[10] This has deprived many women of color access to maternal health care.[11] Currently, half of Georgia’s 159 counties have no obstetric providers.[12] These issues are found in states all across the nation.


[1] Evans, Dabney P., and Subasri Narasimhan. "A Narrative Analysis of Anti-abortion Testimony and Legislative Debate Related to Georgia’s Fetal “heartbeat” Abortion Ban." Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters 28, no. 1 (2019): 1686201. doi:10.1080/26410397.2019.1686201.

[2] Anna North, Catherine Kim. "The "heartbeat" Bills That Could Ban Almost All Abortions, Explained." Vox. April 19, 2019. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/19/18412384/abortion-heartbeat-bill-georgia-louisiana-ohio-2019.

[3], [4], [5], [6], [7] Evans, Dabney, and Narasimhan, “Anti-abortion Testimony.”

[8] North and Kim, “The "heartbeat" Bills.”

[9] Greene, Greg. "Don't Call 6-Week Abortion Bans "Heartbeat" Bills. Here's Why." Planned Parenthood Action Fund. April 25, 2019. Accessed November 29, 2020. https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/blog/dont-call-6-week-abortion-bans-heartbeat-bills-heres-why.

[10], [11], [12] Greene, “6-Week Abortion Bans.”

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