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The heart of this abortion fight: States like Georgia, Ohio and Alabama are challenging women’s autonomy, and settled law


This photograph released by the state shows Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signing a bill that virtually outlaws abortion in the state on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Montgomery, Ala. Republicans who support the measure hope challenges to the law will be used by conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion nationwide. (Hal Yeager/AP)

“Abortion stops a functioning pancreas!”

I imagine anti-abortion politicians brainstorming organs on a whiteboard as they plotted their latest attack on Roe v. Wade.

“Nobody knows what a pancreas is, governor. I vote stomach. Babies drink milk all day! They spit it up too. That gives you a visual.”

“I brought a briefcase full of poetry about the heart. People have known for centuries it’s a birdhouse where our souls live.”

“Pancreatic cancer killed my uncle — you can’t live without a pancreas!”

The claim that any one of our 79 organs makes us more human than another is absurd as a matter of public policy. Yet that’s the theory behind abortion bans keyed to embryonic heart development, which in the last eight weeks have become law in Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia. This week Alabama went further, with its governor signing an outright ban on abortion.

All these laws violate Roe v. Wade, which is why they’re passing. Each one is an invitation asking the Supreme Court to revisit Roe.

Opponents of “heartbeat bans” call them “six-week bans” because that’s when they take effect: when movement can be detected in the tiny tube that forms the foundation of an embryo’s heart. The heart is the first organ to start developing, and that’s the real reason abortion opponents picked it. These are the earliest bans that could allow a conservative court to claim it’s not wholly overturning Roe, it’s just giving states more latitude on the timing of abortions.

That argument is disingenuous, because the viability line is central to Roe’s holding. Roe held that state and federal governments may not force women to carry unwanted pregnancies until after viability. Viability, which occurs just past the halfway mark in a healthy pregnancy, is the point at which every fetal organ has grown enough that a fetus could potentially survive outside the body of the woman who created it.

Roe’s viability standard is the only gestational line that hinges on the hearts of women, and that’s why the Court should keep it.

Biologically, the viability line acknowledges that the pregnant woman’s heart is the driving life force that makes embryonic and fetal survival possible. Her heart pumps blood that her lungs have oxygenated, her digestive system has nourished, and her kidneys, liver and other organs have rid of impurities, through a placenta her body created. Even embryos and fetuses with fatal heart defects can survive to delivery because the woman’s heartbeat keeps them alive until the umbilical cord is cut.

An exclusive focus on embryonic hearts obliterates the beating heart of a woman, and the intimate, difficult, and life-altering way pregnant women must share their bodies.

Proponents of these new bans offer false symmetry, claiming that if death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating, life must begin when a heartbeat starts. Yet the prenatal status of being alive they claim begins on Day One with the living cell that is a fertilized egg, and the death they invoke occurs when a self-sustaining heart has stopped.

Morally, the Roe ruling acknowledged that abortion is a matter of the heart for women and couples confronting unwanted pregnancies. As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in 1973: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

Life in the moral sense starts at different points in pregnancy for different people, and protecting freedom of conscience affirms the importance of another organ: our brains.

The Roe Court held that legislatures cannot force women to bear children against their will in service of the moral ideals of strangers. If the justices of the Roberts Court have a heart, they’ll do the same.

Watson is author of “Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion” and a bioethics professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.