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Heartbeat Laws Protect Human Dignity; the Recent Court Decision Against Georgia’s Law Does Not

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On July 13th, a federal judge permanently blocked Georgia’s recent heartbeat law from going into effect. The law would have prohibited abortion, barring certain specific exceptions, after a heartbeat is detectable in the pre-born child, usually at around 6 weeks after conception. Unfortunately, a recent federal ruling declares that Georgia’s heartbeat law violates the 14th amendment and is unconstitutional. I was with Governor Brian Kemp at the signing of the bill. Here’s what the cultural conversation about heartbeat bills gets wrong.

Georgia’s law faced an uphill cultural battle from the moment it was first proposed. Pro-abortion advocates and activists argue that heartbeat bills like Georgia’s are unnecessarily “restrictive” on women seeking an abortion. They argue that most women don’t know that they are pregnant until well after a heartbeat is detectable in the pre-born. As a result, they say that heartbeat bills effectively work just like abortion bans, preventing women from getting any abortions at all.

But we need to be very clear about one thing here. Heartbeat laws aren’t primarily about “restricting” women; they are first and foremost about putting the inherent human dignity of the unborn into law. That means heartbeat laws are about recognizing and protecting the rights of the unborn. Every human being possesses the right to life, whether born or unborn. We have a moral imperative to protect, cherish, and nurture human life at every stage. Heartbeat laws take that moral imperative and put it into law. 

That’s exactly what we all want our laws to do. We all want law to express and defend the moral truths of human equality, dignity, value. It’s disappointing to me how often and how quickly laws crafted to protect the value of unborn life are rephrased and debated as laws about restricting or attacking women. If anything, it would be much more honest to say that the decision to block Georgia’s heartbeat law is an attack on the pre-born because it prevents legal protections from going into effect that would ensure America is a country where the truths of human equality and dignity apply not just to children and adults, but to the pre-born too.

Neither are heartbeat laws just a partisan play by Republicans or a prerogative of white evangelicals. Being pro-life simply shouldn’t be a partisan issue. When I was working on getting Georgia’s law passed, I heard from and worked alongside both Republicans and Democrats. It’s an unfortunate fact that the official party platform for the Democrat party no longer has a place for pro-life Democrats, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. According to the last national Gallup Poll on abortion (2019), nearly 30% of Democratic voters, and 44% of Independent voters identify as pro-life. And we all too often forget that the pro-life movement is incredibly diverse and is filled with Black voices. I am one of them.

But are heartbeat laws really unconstitutional, as Judge Steven Jones ruled in Georgia’s case? Pro-abortion advocates act like the constitutional case against heartbeat bills is cut and dry, but it really isn’t. The Roe v. Wade decision is anything but clear and compelling in its argument pinning legal personhood, with all its attendant rights and protections,  on fetal viability in the third trimester. What heartbeat bills recognize is the established medical fact that only about 4% of pregnancies end in miscarriage after a heartbeat is detected. It is completely reasonable to consider a fetal heartbeat as a sign that a healthy, viable new life is coming to be in a mother’s womb. The Constitution exists precisely to codify and protect the rights of such human life, and heartbeat laws simply extend those protections to the unborn who are living inside the womb.

For now, the federal court has made its ruling. But Governor Kemp has stated he intends to file for an appeal, and we will likely hear more debate about Georgia’s heartbeat bill in the months to come. When we do, I hope we’ll get the debate right this time by putting the focus on human dignity and the rights of unborn, rather than partisan political issues and disingenuous narratives.

Rev. Dean Nelson is the executive director of Human Coalition Action.

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Rev. Dean Nelson is the executive director of Human Coalition Action.