Researchers who examined arguments put forward for Georgia’s so-called fetal “heartbeat” bill found supporters used misleading, unscientific language, and also demeaned the experiences of slaves, African Americans, and LGBTQIA folk by suggesting embryos face similar hardships.
Georgia House Bill 481, which passed by a small margin in 2019, bans abortions at around six weeks gestation, or the point at which embryonic cardiac activity—incorrectly known as the fetal “heartbeat”—can be detected. At this point, most women are not aware they are pregnant, meaning such legislation effectively bans abortion. Almost 100 such fetal “heartbeat” bills have been introduced across 25 U.S. states since 2011, with 16 states proposing them in 2019. HB 481 was due to come into effect in January 2020, but has been placed on hold after a federal ruling in October.
According to analysis published in the journal Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, those against terminations had a three-pronged attack. They incorrectly state embryonic cardiac activity indicates a fetus is alive; used this to argue for a new protected class of persons; and asserted fetuses should be afforded legal rights above those given by federal law.
For instance, it was argued the lack of a heartbeat indicates a person is dead, therefore its presence suggests they are alive. That’s despite the fact cardiac activity is not the same as a functioning heart or heartbeat, and this alone does not meet the medical definition of life, the researchers explained.
Supporters also used loaded terms such as “unborn child” to suggest a fetus is a person. Such language “deliberately mimics biological, human, and child development terminology in an attempt to add an air of medical credibility to the claim, which cannot be backed by scientific sources,” the researchers said. “Heartbeat” bill advocates also misrepresented the stances of credible organisations such as the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), the study revealed.
The debate also raised complications with treating fetuses as living persons, including whether they should be included on the census and enrolled for Medicaid, the authors found.
The co-authors of the paper told Newsweek: “We found that supporters of HB 481 distorted medical language lending an air of credibility to the concepts underlying the bill.”
Fetuses were also repeatedly described in ways to make them appear vulnerable, innocent and at risk of maltreatment, the researchers said. Citing the 14th Amendment, which recognizes the full humanity of Black Americans, backers argued fetuses require similar protection to former slaves.
Dabney P. Evansin, associate professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and Subasri Narasimhan, post-doctoral fellow at the institution, co-authored the paper. They told Newsweek the major tactic for furthering arguments for affording fetsus personhood “was the appropriation of progressive victories such as those of the civil and LGBTQ rights movements.
“This line of argumentation demeans the lived experiences of marginalized groups,” they said.
Evansin and Narasimhan wrote in their paper: “The hypocrisy in these forms of appropriation seems ludicrous given that few if any anti-abortion activists are also known to be advocating in anti-racist, gay pride, right to health, or other intersectional social justice spaces.”
They argued the “outrageous claims served a purpose” to build a case for challenging Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court in the hope abortion will be made illegal.
Evansin and Narasimhan told Newsweek: “Early abortion bans are not grounded in credible scientific evidence. In our research we found that supporters of HB 481 conflated two important concepts: non-viable pregnancy and fetal viability. Fetal viability is an important concept in abortion jurisprudence and is defined as the time at which a fetus can survive on its own including with the assistance of medical intervention.
“A number of factors play into fetal viability but survival before 22 weeks gestation is extremely unlikely even with medical intervention,” they explained. “Given that early abortion bans limit the timing of the procedure to well before this standard using language related to fetal viability is inappropriate.”
They concluded: “This research adds to our understanding that early abortion bans are scientifically and medically unsound. It also clearly lays out the strategies that supporters of early abortion ban legislation are using to advance their arguments.”