Last week, North Dakota passed the strictest limits on abortion in the country – banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. This is usually around six weeks or earlier and before most women even know they are pregnant. So if this law is enforced, it will likely mean a ban on all abortions in the state.
The new laws are part of a nationwide effort by religious fundamentalists to chip away at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting the right of women to have abortions. In 2011 and 2012, 135 states passed laws further restricting a woman’s ability to have an abortion, including lowering the number of weeks when an abortion can be legally performed, requiring unnecessary ultrasounds, requiring unnecessary counseling, requiring parental consent, increasing the number of visits to a clinic before a woman can have an abortion, and many other restrictions.
In North Dakota, the law would impose a 5-year prison sentence if doctors perform an abortion once a heartbeat is detected. But the only way a fetal heartbeat can be detected at this early stage of pregnancy is through what is called a transvaginal ultrasound – a procedure whereby a doctor must insert a probe into a woman’s vagina. Even though these procedures are not medically necessary, increasingly states are requiring them by law as a way to pressure women not to have an abortion. Many doctors have refused to carry out these procedures, risking fines, imprisonment, and a loss of license. Many doctors have protested the requirement of this unnecessary, extremely invasive procedure, explaining that it is like requiring them to rape their patients.
While Roe v. Wade allows abortions up to 24 weeks, or longer if a woman’s health is threatened, in some states politicians are trying to ban abortions altogether. The North Dakota legislature has approved a state constitutional amendment that would grant so-called “personhood rights” for a fertilized fetus. This is an attempt to ban all abortions by declaring a fetus a citizen at the point of conception. This would mean that women and doctors could be charged with murder for ever having or performing an abortion.
These laws will be devastating to women. Abortion rates don’t decrease when they are illegal but are only forced underground, becoming more dangerous. When all abortions were illegal, women were forced to carryout abortions through all sorts of dangerous and life-threatening methods, often dying from internal bleeding, infection, or poisoning, or being injured or disfigured for life.
The need for women to have access to abortions is undeniable. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. every year are unintentional and unwanted. Most women who have abortions are not irresponsible teenagers using abortion as birth control – as many religious fundamentalists claim. Most women who have abortions are in their twenties. Over 50 percent of women who have abortions were using a form of contraception when they became pregnant. Six in ten women having abortions have already had a child and many have had two or more. About 35 percent of all women of reproductive age in the U.S. will have had an abortion by the time they are 45.
Most often women decide to have an abortion because they don’t have the money or they don’t feel ready to take on the responsibilities of raising a child. Seventy-five percent of women say that having a child would conflict with their ability to work, go to school, or take care of other children. In 2008, four in ten women having abortions were below the federal poverty line. Too often women are forced to handle the physical, emotional and financial burden of raising a child alone.
Whether or not to carry out a pregnancy and raise a child is a major decision for every woman. And it is their right to choose – for any reason –whether they want to bring a child into this world. But we all have the responsibility to make it a world they would ever choose to bring a child into.