Ask Cincinnati: The Heartbeat Bill
Written by Emerin Boomer, Olivia Taylor, and Olivia Vitori. Photography by Olivia Taylor.
In April, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed into law a bill that criminalizes abortion after the fetus's heartbeat can be detected, usually five or six weeks into the pregnancy. This would essentially make abortions illegal and punishable in court for those who receive and perform them. Before the bill was introduced, the legal cutoff for abortions in Ohio was 20 weeks into the pregnancy.
No exceptions for cases of rape or incest are made in the law, which is slated to go into effect in July unless blocked by a federal judge. While the law is unofficially known as “the heartbeat bill,” it’s officially named the Human Rights and Heartbeat Protection Act.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, and other groups are suing the state over the law to block it before it goes into effect. A spokesperson for Governor DeWine said in a statement to CNN, “[The lawsuit] is an expected development. Governor DeWine has long said that this issue will ultimately be decided by the United States Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure of abortion nationwide in 1973, and since then, it has been left to state governments to decide how to regulate the procedure.
We talked to two advocates: one in favor of the bill, one against it. We also talked to the people of Cincinnati about this new law – interviews were done in Clifton, at U.C., Xavier, and Holy Name Church. We asked people about what the bill does for Ohio as well as how the bill may affect them personally – their responses are interspersed throughout this piece.
This article – a response to our open-ended group project assignment as Women of Cincy residents – was a complex undertaking, but we find these perspectives are a necessary part of the broader conversation of abortion in America. Abortion is a complicated issue with deeply emotional stakes, and the fate of Roe v. Wade could be determined in our backyard. The recent coverage of this issue has been lacking the voices of Ohioans and we want to change that.
Throughout this process, we put aside our personal beliefs, whatever they may be, to start a balanced dialogue. We ask and urge you to do the same. For a few minutes, forget about your own opinions or preconceived ideas, and read this article with an open, clear mind.
Women of Cincy is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to giving a voice to people of all beliefs. We encourage our readers to have open minds, make informed decisions, and be engaged in their community.
Note that this interview contains some strong language.
Background on the experts
Em is a Cincinnati native and U.C. graduate who has worked with Planned Parenthood. They are now a prevention specialist at a local nonprofit. Em does what they can to push for positive change through various artistic and political movements.
Meg is the executive director of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati. Right to Life is an educational and legislative group that worked on the heartbeat bill and advocates the banning of both abortion and euthanasia. It was founded in the early 1970s around the time of Roe v. Wade.
In your own words, what does this bill do for Ohio?
Em Joy: The abortion bill, essentially, outlaws and criminalizes abortion before most people even know that they're pregnant – which is completely unrealistic for most people. What it does – and what lawmakers have been doing for years – is sets up these systems of what we call TRAP laws [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers]. Basically, these laws restrict the ability to get an abortion. They'll mandate that hallways have to be a certain width in order to be accessible for a gurney or something like that, when [many] abortions are performed medically, not surgically.
[Editor’s note: Though women are more likely to choose medical abortions over surgical abortions in recent years, slightly less than half of abortions performed are medical.]
So they pass these laws under the guise of protecting the health and well-being of people who are getting abortions, but in reality, they're just making it harder and harder for abortion providers to do their job. Here’s what we're seeing across the country: All these states, all these legislators are introducing these really restrictive laws and criminalizing abortion services as a way to trigger a vote in the Supreme Court. Their ultimate goal is to challenge Roe v. Wade and overturn it.
Ginette, 50: To me, the heartbeat bill means there is life there; it means that is a little baby. If we want to care for children and protect children, we need to protect them from the start. A heartbeat always means there is life, and to me, it is the right thing to do. I think anyone who cares about children would want the same thing. To me, it’s not a political issue; it’s really just doing the right thing.
Meg Wittman: The heartbeat bill says that a doctor cannot perform abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected. And the doctor must check for a fetal heartbeat according to standard medical practice, and those guidelines in the bill will be set by the Ohio Department of Health.
“This isn't about just legislating the issue to death.”
What that looks like is that the number of abortions will certainly go down. The most recent abortion statistics report from the Ohio Department of Health say there were a little over 20,000 abortions in the state of Ohio in 2017, and that was slightly up from the prior year. Hamilton County takes about 15% of those, and [those are referrals from] Planned Parenthood on Auburn Avenue. The number of abortions at less than nine weeks were 11,000 to 12,000. If you set that mark at six weeks, you're looking at roughly half of all abortions, and that's a very general number.
We believe abortion is wrong, all the time, always, because it's the taking of another person's life. So, the heartbeat bill is good in our estimation, but of course it doesn't end abortion. On top of that, there's legislation and then there is the culture, and that's an entirely different thing. Which is why we have our communication and education sections. This isn't about just legislating the issue to death. It's about us being able to spread our message and convert people to the pro-life movement. Slavery was legal for so, so many years, and it was confirmed by the Supreme Court. And there's been so many human rights violations in the history of America, and throughout the world. So, this is another human rights violation that we're fighting. We are really excited about the heartbeat bill, but what we want is for Ohio to become a pro-life state, in the legislator and in the cultural landscape.
Delilah, 20: It restricts women and healthcare needs – it’s less progressive for the state. With the bill in Alabama, abortion has suddenly become a big deal. Even though I wouldn’t personally have an abortion, I know girls who might be affected by it if the state restricts abortion.
It’s a Complex Issue
One argument we often hear is that this bill won’t stop illegal abortions from happening. Is that something that Right to Life is concerned about?
M.W.: Yes, and that conversation comes up a lot. The Washington Post gave the president of Planned Parenthood, Leana Wen, four “Pinocchios.” She'd been saying thousands of women died from illegal abortions prior to abortion being legal. But that was fact-checked and proven wrong.
But of course we're concerned. Of course we don't want women to die, which is why we also care about helping. People will always disobey, but just because someone is not going to listen to laws isn’t a good reason not to do it. In the same vein, we all have to be prepared to help women. We understand that there are so many women facing a crisis pregnancy, and the very first – and only – thing they need is help. They don't need judgment; they don't need to be harassed. Unfortunately, I think sometimes the pro-life movement is kind of painted as very cold and that we don't care about women. We would tell you that there are thousands of pregnancy centers across the country [independent of Right to Life] that provide all kinds of things like free ultrasounds; they provide maternal assistance for women; they provide free pregnancy tests, and they operate solely on donations. You walk in the door; you know your services are free. They will help parents if they want to go the adoption route. There is a big network of people ready to help women – any woman. They also do male mentoring, because men are struggling, too, and they face crisis when women have crisis pregnancies. And we're looking at all of that, and we are totally interested in a holistic approach to this.
What misconceptions do you think people have about the pro-life movement?
M.W.: There's a few. First, people think we're old-fashioned. Which is just crazy to me, because I'm independent; I support myself, and we believe all women and men should have equal rights. People think we're stuck in the past and we want to go back to the 1950s or something. Certainly, we don't believe that abortion is a right because it takes the life of someone else. Nobody gets a right to kill.
The second thing that is often said on the other side: The other movement is trying to say you need abortion to be successful. They're saying that you need abortion to be successful in your career, or you need abortion to get your degree or to save your marriage. Our point is: You don't need abortion, because we believe that women are strong and independent thinking beings and you absolutely can have a baby.
“It's all connected – all forms of oppression, all forms of violence and stripping people's rights.”
Again, I believe as a woman you absolutely can do things right. You are strong and powerful and you have a unique ability to carry children and to give a life, but also to do everything else. You can be a good girlfriend; you can have your hobbies and you do all of these other things in your life. It's always so impressive to me when you see children who are with working moms.
How do you think this bill will affect Ohioans?
E.J.: It depends on who the citizen is. If the citizen is wealthy, white, straight, and cisgender, they will always have an option. Their option might be to leave the state to get an abortion or their option might be to order pills online to get an abortion. They're gonna have access to higher levels of medical care, and so it won't necessarily be an issue for them, but in some cases it will. When we think about the people who are most affected by this issue: people of color, people of low income, people with disabilities, people who already face so many barriers – they're not going to be able to leave the state for multiple days at a time, take off time from their job, come up with the money. I think the average cost of an abortion is like $500, minimum. If they even have health insurance at all, which many don’t, they're going to be stuck with a choice – a choice to either try to terminate their pregnancy in unsafe ways, or continue with a pregnancy that might be dangerous for their health.
It's just not cisgender women who are affected by restrictive abortion laws, but also transgender men, non-binary folks, any person with a uterus – so what kind of impact do you think this bill will have on people who are not cisgender women?
E.J.: I think that when you look at folks who are in the queer community – so transgender folks, non-binary folks, people who have uteruses and ovaries, intersex individuals, as well as anyone who is able to become pregnant – we already see huge amounts of stigma from the medical community. Most queer folks are afraid to go see a medical provider in the first place because they're afraid of being discriminated against and treated poorly. And when we think about just being able to access medical services in general, the queer community has such huge barriers. There's also large amounts of poverty within the queer community, so that's another barrier.
Kathy, 58: The bill moves us in the wrong direction. Why not just leave it the way it was? I would never advise someone to get an abortion, but I think there is a health danger in restricting abortion.
Melissa, 54: I’m praying that people open their minds and hearts to understand what is meant to be in life, and that is to allow life to thrive from the start and then to be nurtured and developed into the person God intended that baby to be.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
E.J.: When we think about the legislators that are elected, they must always vote down party lines. So [generally], the Republicans voted against abortion, against funding for Planned Parenthood. And the Democrats voted for abortion rights, for Planned Parenthood – that kind of thing. What you have to then look at is, why is there this overwhelming disparity in our government where Republicans control every level of the state? And then when you look at that, you start to see is the gerrymandering of districts, political districts. The state of Ohio was found in violation of the Constitution in terms of how they have drawn party lines or the district date for elections. They've been given a certain amount of time to have a new map – a fair and equitable map, redrawn to prevent one party from having ultimate control.
[Editor’s note: The Supreme Court has since ruled that federal courts do not have this authority, though Chief Justice John Roberts stated he does believe the districting plans in Ohio are “highly partisan.”]
So, when we think about this issue of abortion, we can't just be focused on this one issue; we also have to think about the other issues that are connected to it – things that lead us to these kinds of decisions being passed in the first place. So, we have to stop gerrymandering; we have to have fair and equitable voting districts; we have to get money out of politics; we have to increase voter registration and voting rights. When you have a government that is actively trying to suppress voter registration by determining who can vote and who can't vote, you're also affecting the policies and decisions that are put into play and being made. It's all connected – all forms of oppression, all forms of violence and stripping people's rights. People just need to get involved.
“When we talk about this issue, we can't just focus on the ‘worst of the worst’ kind of situations; it should be reproductive rights for everybody.”
As somebody who works in the field of sexual violence, a lot of the arguments that I've seen is, well, if somebody is raped or if somebody is a victim of incest, or some form of sexual assault, then they deserve to choose an abortion, if they want. But then we are framing the abortion argument only in terms of assault, and that negates the experiences and the desires of people who just don't want to be parents. When we talk about this issue, we can't just focus on the “worst of the worst” kind of situations; it should be reproductive rights for everybody.
Another argument is, “Well, have the baby and then give it up for adoption.” The foster care system is so overloaded. There are thousands of children who don't have homes, and nobody's willing to adopt. You’re putting even more burden on a system that's already overburdened. This is a human right. Stop interfering in other people's lives. Stop trying to legislate your personal beliefs and values onto other people.
Michael, 59: This bill is not moving Ohio in the right direction. If someone I know or cared about was in that situation, I would want them to have a choice. This bill also affects how I will vote – whether a politician supports this bill or not.
M.W.: Obviously, the bill has been challenged in the courts, which was expected. We knew that would happen. And our goal, the pro-life movement’s goal, is to get something to the Supreme Court. It may be difficult for it to go into effect since it is in the court system right now. A lot of judges have said, “Operate as usual until this is all worked out.” But we are working very hard to get it through the court system, to challenge Roe v. Wade, and ultimately to get something to the Supreme Court. There are many opinions about how that might play out. There are a lot of people who surmise things, and I'm reluctant to say anything because I just don't know how that would play out. Maybe it looks like removing a piece of Roe [...] We're really happy, because this is this is a step in the right direction.
“We're not judging you; instead, we're asking you to consider this as a human rights issue.”
I'm not making a ton of money by working in this movement; I'm just trying to help others. That’s what this is all about: helping other people. It's all about being a voice for those children who can't speak. Our society has gone down this path where convenience has become the god. But sometimes, things are just inconvenient. Sometimes doing the right thing is inconvenient. We're just ready to help. I’ve seen so many things, and it's heartbreaking to read about women who are struggling financially or physically or they’re single mothers, and that’s why we need to help women. These things are so hard; it's a hard issue, but at the end of the day there's a moral right and wrong. There's a life or there's not. We need a society which believes that taking a life is wrong. We need people to see that and understand. Some people say, “If only wombs had windows.” For an entire generation, your first baby picture was probably an ultrasound – that was when you were inside of your mother's womb, and you were still a person.
What would you say to advocates who don’t share your beliefs?
M.W.: The first thing is that, we care about everybody. We care about you – we care about all the people in the pro-abortion movement, and we care about women. We are interested in helping everybody. We're not judging you; instead, we're asking you to consider this as a human rights issue. To anyone, I would ask this question: When do you think that life begins? And then go on to say that science has told us that life begins at the moment of fertilization, because at that moment you are a completely separate life – a zygote which has its own set of DNA. So, I would ask them to consider, for a moment, that we have an obligation to protect them, especially since they cannot defend themselves.
E.J.: You can't legislate against people's bodies. You can't take away people's options, especially for a medically safe procedure. You can't use your own religious values or some uneducated argument to take away people's right to control their bodies, to control their reproductive plans, to control their livelihoods. I think most people have a very emotional response to the issue of abortion or the question of abortion. But it's not until you are literally in that situation, where you have to make the choice for yourself, or for your loved one, or with your loved one. Then you understand why being able to even have that choice is so important.
Anonymous: It takes away women’s right to a choice. It’s extremely selfish to bring a child into the world to a parent who cannot support it. It is just adding to the suffering in the world. Growing up in India in the ’80s… The abortion restrictions back then are similar to what is happening today. I was trafficked and my dad raped me and I had four abortions because of it. My uterus was damaged because there was no access to care. I can’t have children now, but even though I don’t want children, there are still health complications that came from the lack of care I experienced.
Dr. Art Kunath: “I think that [the bill] is great. I believe that every human being’s existence begins at conception. There is room for improvement, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and I’m quite happy that it was signed by the governor. I hope it goes to the Supreme Court to recognize the personhood of the fetus from conception. Like the Alabama bill, it really focuses on personhood and that is why it doesn’t allow for rape and incest, because that would contradict the very terms. Every human being has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
After spending five weeks trekking around the city and approaching dozens of pedestrians for comment, we wish to give a simple thank you to the people of Cincinnati. Although some declined to comment, everyone declined in a civilized and humble manner. Those who did speak with us were thoroughly engaged, sensitive, and thoughtful citizens. We thank Em, Meg, and all the pedestrians to whom we spoke. Throughout this process, it became clear that our city is beautifully diverse in both thought and people; it also has more than enough down-home Midwestern kindness. So thank you, Cincinnati.
The Women of Cincy residency is committed to promoting experience, growth, relationships, and passion in students interested in editorial and communications work. The residents round out their time with Women of Cincy by creating a capstone project on any topic they choose. Click here to learn more about the Women of Cincy residency and read former resident capstones!