Heartbeat Bans

Heartbeat bans attempt to outlaw abortions as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, which is often in the embryonic stage, as early as six weeks’ gestation, before many women even know they are pregnant. These laws, some of the most extreme in the country, are flatly unconstitutional because they seek to ban abortion months before the point at which a fetus is viable.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, made it clear that states may not ban abortion outright before the fetus is determined to be viable, recognized by the medical community as around 24 weeks’ gestation. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that states may not place an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Like laws that attempt to ban abortion at 20 weeks’ gestation, bills banning abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat are intended as a direct challenge to these U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Heartbeat ban bills first rose to prominence in Ohio in 2011, where anti-choice activist Janet Porter and her organization Faith2Action sent thousands of heart-shaped balloons to the Ohio statehouse on Valentine’s Day to thank legislators who sponsored HB 125, Ohio’s heartbeat bill. The bill was supported by Porter and her allies, as well as by numerous Republican legislators, led by Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R-Napoleon), who sponsored the bill.

Yet not everyone in the anti-choice movement supported the passage of the heartbeat bill. For example, prominent anti-choice activist James Bopp Jr. testified against the bill, expressing concerns that it would provide the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to strengthen Roe v. Wade. Ohio Right to Life, which also opposed the ban, believed that the heartbeat bill would sidetrack other anti-choice bills—like 20-week bans—that had a greater chance of being enacted. Ultimately, the Ohio heartbeat bill failed to pass, but it provided a blueprint for other states attempting to pass similar laws.

Examples of Heartbeat Bans (last updated April 2, 2014)

In 2013, two states ultimately succeeded in passing heartbeat laws. Both Arkansas and North Dakota passed heartbeat ban legislation prohibiting abortion early in the first trimester of pregnancy. Arkansas’ legislation required an abortion provider to use an abdominal ultrasound to detect a fetal heartbeat and banned abortion when the pregnancy has progressed to 12 weeks and a fetal heartbeat is detected. North Dakota went even further, passing the most stringent anti-choice legislation in the country—a bill that bans abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected using “acceptable medical practice,” which is approximately six weeks through the use of a transvaginal ultrasound.

Both laws were immediately challenged in court and blocked. Arkansas’ law was permanently blocked by a federal court in March 2014. North Dakota’s law was temporarily blocked while a legal challenge on the law’s constitutionality proceeds in court.

Such legal setbacks have not stopped anti-choice legislators from persisting in their attempts to pass these laws, however. So far in 2014, heartbeat ban bills have been introduced in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio. If passed, they will likely be struck down.

This summary was last updated April 8, 2014.