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Why This Isn’t The Right Time For Republicans To Propose An Abortion Heartbeat Bill


On Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on H.R. 490, better known as the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017. Although pro-life legislators mean well sponsoring a bill that would essentially ban abortions at six weeks’ gestation—near when most women discover they’re pregnant—it’s not the best focus for them right now.

That’s not just because the bill won’t pass, but because Republican legislators are better off spending their time, energy, and funds on other methods that still encourage more women to carry pregnancies to term. Here are a few points where legislators might consider focusing.

Other Ways to Inform and Educate

One of the bill’s effects pro-life advocates are passionate about is that its text encapsulates a central pro-life argument. As early as six weeks (and often even earlier), doctors can detect a baby’s unique heartbeat. Therefore, the “fetus” is a baby who has intrinsic value and should not be aborted. Many staunch pro-life advocates, including me, often use the “life begins at conception” argument to draw moral and legal conclusions, and this is no different.

That said, because the likelihood of this bill passing is 14 percent, according to the GovTrack website, this bill isn’t a good priority right now. Some have posited that even if it won’t pass, its ability to inform the public about fetal development by generating discussion is important, but there are other ways to inform people about the science of babies. This coincides with the idea that abortion should be left up to the states to decide. So should education on the matter.

While abortion is a politics-heavy issue, it doesn’t explain nationwide polarity on the matter. This year a judge ruled Arkansas can block Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood and a new Texas law restricts insurance coverage of abortion. Texas has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and abortions have dropped since these restrictions took place. However, policies are drastically different in states like Oregon, where the governor signed a bill that requires insurance companies to pay for abortions, regardless of circumstances. What explains the disparities?

How about State and Local Sex Ed Policies

For one, sex education and education about abortion typically begin in grade school. The Population Institute gave the state of Oregon an “A+” grade on sex education, birth control, and reproductive rights. The state mandated “comprehensive and medically accurate sex education in public schools that discusses HIV prevention, contraceptive methods and abstinence.” Yet Oregon has an “unintended pregnancy rate” of 46 percent.

In Texas, data about unintended pregnancies varies. Guttmacher claims Texas has a higher rate of unintended pregnancies than Oregon does, but an article in the Texas Tribune argues that since the number of abortions has been steadily falling while the birthrate has remained nearly the same, “it seems reasonable to say that the unintended pregnancy rate in Texas fell after Planned Parenthood was defunded.” A quarter of public schools in Texas use an “abstinence-only” program for sex ed. The two seem linked.

If we want to educate people about when a baby has a heartbeat or when life begins, pro-life legislators are better off working to influence sex education in schools. That’s where the heart of the issue lies and that’s where the next generation will be influenced.

Or Try Virginia’s Example

Trying to legislate people into halting abortions in 2017 is kind of like William Wilberforce trying to stop the slave trade at its peak in the 1700s. The country is still highly opinionated and divided on the issue, despite—or one could say because of—decades of legal abortion. That said, conservatives have made strides in this area doing everything but banning abortion at the state level.

Conservatives have had the most success lowering the number of abortions by using an old Wilberforce tactic I call strategy. After decades of offering a bill in Parliament that banned the slave trade, Wilberforce had found little success. Eventually, he decided to get shrewd and offered a bill that didn’t ban the slave trade outright, but had that same effect over time. As I wrote in a column here a couple years ago:

[Wilberforce] and like-minded comrades, including politicians and lawyers, estimated that 80 percent of all slave ships sailing to the British New Indies were flying the American flag, thus being protected from privateers. In 1806, the Foreign Slave Trade Bill removed that protection, stopping much of the slave trade by default. (The Slave Trade Act passed one year later.) These were shrewd strategies when political subtleties were necessary.

In 2011, following the horrifying story of Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who butchered babies and women in a back-alley-like atmosphere in Pennsylvania where he kept human body parts in jars, Virginia required abortion facilities to meet health and safety regulations similar to those in hospitals. According to Guttmacher, “there was a 23% decline in the abortion rate in Virginia between 2011 and 2014, from 16.3 to 12.5 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age.”

Now, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt last year, which basically said such regulations “place an undue burden” on women who “need” an abortion, the regulations in Virginia were loosened, but they still were very effective for several years. This strategy, and other similar pieces of legislation that enforce restrictions of some kind on Planned Parenthood or abortion in general, has been effective.

In the last five years alone, “states enacted 338 new abortion restrictions, which account for nearly 30% restrictions enacted by states since Roe.” While offering bills with some kind of strategic measure perhaps aren’t as direct, they can often be more effective because they can actually get passed.

In the Meantime, Defund Planned Parenthood Already

To hear the GOP tell it, 2017 was supposed to be the year conservatives, with a majority in the House and Senate and the presidency, turned their principles into legislative action. As far as I can see, Congress has struggled to do one of the easiest tasks on abortion: defund Planned Parenthood. If they want to ban or reduce abortion at all, they could start by doing this.

I say easy because there is so much evidence Planned Parenthood has partaken in illegal activities and does not need or deserve federal funds. Following the Center for Medical Progress’ undercover videos that demonstrated Planned Parenthood was illegally harvesting and profiting from the sale of aborted baby parts, the House Oversight Committee found Planned Parenthood did not need taxpayer dollars. Yet they still operate with a robust federal stipend. With a conservative majority, defunding Planned Parenthood should not only be possible, but probable. Yet so far, nothing of substance has happened.

Forgive me if I don’t empathize with a bill that proposes an abortion ban but will never actually go into effect, while a genuine chance to defund Planned Parenthood—and fulfill a major GOP campaign promise—comes and goes before our very eyes. Conservatives are sick of electing Republicans into office on promises they fail to deliver. Instead of offering a showpiece bill that will never pass, defund the mammoth organization behind the largest proportion of abortions in this country, and abortion as an industry, like the slave trade in Wilberforce’s day, will decline.