Back in February, as the United States obsessed over whether Donald Trump would force a second government shutdown, Ohio state senator Kristina Roegner quietly introduced a bill that is now part of a flood of laws threatening the right to an abortion all across the country.
The bill, known as a “heartbeat” abortion bill, received little national press. But, when it was signed into law in April, it made good on a near seven-year effort to restrict abortions in the state to six weeks, before many women even know they're pregnant.
“The point for me, for this heartbeat bill, and all the pro-life legislation, is to save the unborn,” Ms Roegner told The Independent this week of the bill, which has been introduced in every legislative session in the state since at least 2011. “It’s to save innocent life.”
The bill is one of eight in the US to be passed this year, following over 40 years' worth of incremental work to suppress abortions. And they have spurred a national reckoning over abortion rights, and led virtually every American who has much of an opinion on the issue to wonder: is this the end of Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that made abortion a right for women across the US?
As it turns out, it takes very little prodding for that goal to be made explicit.
“The primary purpose is to save human life,” Ms Roegner said. “But we’re not going to shy away from it going to the Supreme Court with the intention of overturning Roe v Wade.”
For supporters of abortion bans — including the Ohio bill and one recently signed law in Alabama, which would send physicians to prison for life for terminating a pregnancy at any stage — the strategy is pretty clear, and sets these red states on a direct collision course with the Supreme Court if all things go well.
With Roe as the law of the land, the plan goes, each of these bills would run foul of the limits put in place by that ruling, which limits states from banning abortions if a foetus couldn’t survive outside of the womb. At six weeks, a foetus is the size of a sweet pea and is just beginning to form paddle-like hands and feet, but is nowhere near ready for the real world.
So, far from banning abortion immediately, the laws that have been popping up across the country are intended to draw legal challenges, with the issue becoming more and more pressing for the nation’s higher court to make a decision as more states join the battle.
State representative Terri Collins, who sponsored the bill in Alabama that would make virtually all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape or incest, confirmed that the Supreme Court is the point.
“But what I’m trying to do here is get this case in front of the Supreme Court so Roe v Wade can be overturned,” she told the Washington Post, echoing a similar statements she has made to other media outlets.
Since Roe v Wade was handed down in 1973, it is estimated that more than 54 million abortions have been performed in the United States alone.
While abortion ban advocates describe that number as a mass slaughter — with the Alabama bill explicitly linking abortion to the Holocaust — many in the pro choice movement say the figure is not the point.
One in four women are expected to have an abortion by the time they turn 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and the protections provided by Roe mean that those women have no reason to seek out the procedure in an unsafe condition. Instead, doctors and physicians are in the room, helping perform a procedure that was much more dangerous when it was done secretly fifty years ago.
And, having the procedure in the realm of the legal means that there is no discrepancy in enforcement. While the bills banning abortion being passed across the country don’t mention the race or socioeconomic status of the women who might be targeted, it has been argued that abortions would disproportionately impact poor women and women of colour. That’s at least in part because judges and prosecutors in America often have a fair amount of discretion on sentencing guidelines, and that tends to benefit rich white folks.
But, while Ms Roegner and Ms Collins may hope to force a new Supreme Court ruling — and might expect a favourable ruling, since Donald Trump has pushed the court to the right with the appointment of justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — it is not clear that the court would actually take up the case.
Plus, a challenge to Roe v Wade could come from anywhere, according to the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, Brigitte Amir.
Ms Amir told Mother Jones that she doesn’t think these laws getting loads of press will be the end of Roe, even if they have that potential.
“Any Supreme Court case that deals with abortion could be used to dismantle Roe v Wade,” she told the magazine.
Which is to say that, much like the Ohio bill passed in April, the biggest challenge may not come with a bang. It may end with a whimper.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies