“Heartbeat” Abortion Bans: What Comes Next

Abortion has been almost entirely banned in Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Here are the legal implications.

Trigger Warning: This contains graphic descriptions of historical abortion methods, as well as modern-day methods used to induce abortion in places where medical abortion is not legal.

A neon heart being clutched in the dark. Image by Designecologist, courtesy of Unsplash.

The human heart is lumpy and asymmetrical, nothing like the cute, smooth pink symbol that lives in our emoji keyboards and Valentine’s cards. That’s because the inspiration for the iconic heart shape comes not from human biology, but from the seeds of the silphium plant, which was used in ancient Egypt and Crete as a form of hormonal birth control.

Silphium seed worked as a preventative measure as well as an abortifacient. The plant facilitated sex without pregnancy so well it became synonymous with romantic love. Unfortunately, by the time of the Holy Roman Empire, silphium fans had harvested the plant to extinction.

On Tuesday, Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp signed into law a bill banning abortion at 6 weeks of development, when the first faint thrum of a fetal heartbeat can (sometimes) be detected. 6 weeks of development is only two weeks after the typical pregnant person has missed their period, barely enough time to realize that one is pregnant, let alone enough time to schedule a gynecological exam and a termination. This year, similar bills passed in Ohio, Mississippi and Kentucky.

After silphium went extinct, ancient Romans induced abortion by putting pepper and myrrh into their uteruses. Abortion-seeking people were encouraged to jump up and down vigorously, ride horses, or kick themselves in the rear. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates induced abortions using a flexible metal frame that opened up the cervix, and a large curved blade.

Next Tuesday, the Alabama Senate will vote on a bill criminalizing abortion. Under the law, people who get abortions can be penalized by up to 99 years in prison. The Georgia law similarly stipulates that both abortion providers and receivers be punished with a life sentence in prison. That’s even if the abortion is performed out of state.

In prior decades of anti-abortion activism, it was considered inhumane to talk about punishing the person who got the abortion. Abortion doctors were demonized, and sometimes even killed, but desperate pregnant people were seen as hapless victims, not murderous criminals. That is no longer the case.

In ancient China during the Shang Dynasty, abortion-seekers would place liquid mercury in their wombs. This method worked, but cost the person their sanity. During the rule of Roman Emperor Claudius, doctors and midwives used insertable “bombs” made of opium. When ancient Egyptians couldn’t get a hold of silphium seeds, they inserted crocodile dung.

Of course, Republicans lawmakers are perennially attempting to pass abortion bans. It happens during every congressional session in every red state. Two different abortion bans crossed the desk of Ohio’s previous governor, John Kasich, but he vetoed both of them because they were absurdly restrictive and, he believed, unconstitutional. And he was a Republican!

The difference now is how easily these bills find a foothold. Republicans have become drunk on their own bloodlust, propelled in equal measure by their past electoral success and their constant, shrieking victim complex. The Supreme Court has a firm Conservative majority. Even some Democratic politicians in purple states are vocally anti-abortion these days. Anti-choice lawmakers are poised to overturn Roe v. Wade through the passage of these laws, and sadly, that is a very possible and likely consequence of them.

Some herbs and spices arrayed on a table. Image by Brooke Lark, courtesy of Unsplash.

Pre-modern abortion methods tend to fall under one of three categories. The first involves drinking a tea comprised of herbs and toxins, which induces violent cramping in the uterus, causing its contents to expel. The second category involves inserting drugs, animal shit, or poisonous plants into the body, to create fetal death at the source. The final class of methods are the scary ones, tantamount to physical assault: striking the person in the belly, slicing through the insides, or pulling the unwanted fetus out.

Oddly, when an illegal abortion is needed in the modern world, people tend to resort to the latter class of method, the ones that are the most brutal and painful. In our time, it’s actually harder to get an abortion-causing herb than it is to risk sepsis in a dirty bathroom.

Roe v. Wade permits abortion up to the point of “fetal viability”. If a fetus can survive on their own outside the womb, they generally can’t be aborted. Historically, any law banning abortion before that point has gets overturned, and usually quite swiftly.

The danger of these “heartbeat” laws is that they’re positioned to set a new precedent. In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case on a “heartbeat bill” that passed in North Dakota. The bill had been ruled unconstitutional by a lower court, and the Supreme Court stood by that decision.

But 2016’s Supreme Court is very different from 2019’s Supreme Court. All it would take is for the Supreme Court to rule in favor of any of these four states abortion bans. Ruling any single one of them constitutional would contradict Roe v. Wade’s viability rule, and therefore undo its precedent, making abortion bans legal throughout the country.

In college, a girl I knew found out she was pregnant. Abortion was legal in Ohio at the time, but she was too poor to get one, so for an entire weekend she locked herself in her house, did drugs, drank herself into a stupor and repeatedly threw her body down the stairs. She bled, and it hurt, but then she wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Around that same time in my life, I knew a girl with a mohawk, A, who had a late period. She was terrified that she might be pregnant. But she didn’t have health insurance. So A took apart her boyfriend’s penis pump, extracted the tubing, snaked the tubing into her vagina, and worked the pump vigorously. Her insides immediately began to throb and curdle. She dashed to the bathroom and squatted over the toilet as a hail of blood and guts rained out of her body. A month later her periods were back to normal.

In addition to Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, and Georgia, 11 other states are “trigger states”, which means they still have laws on the books that ban abortion. Those states’ abortion bans are currently unenforceable, thanks to Roe v Wade.

But the second a single state’s ‘heartbeat’ bill is upheld by the Supreme Court, abortion instantly becomes illegal throughout every single one of those states. Those states are: Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin. My current home state of Illinois was a trigger state until 2017.

It’s tempting, I think, for blue-staters to look at red-state abortion bans and think they have nothing to do with us. Here in Chicago we are sophisticated and modern, not like those girls I knew in rural Ohio or those ancient Greeks with their pessaries made of dung. But that’s not the case.

Abortion has existed as long as human pregnancy has existed, most of its iterations furtive, painful, and gruesome. And if we don’t make a concerted effort to help other states overturn their abortion “trigger laws”, the way that Illinois did two years ago, we will swiftly return to that bloody legacy.

If you’d like to help abortion-seeking people in states like Georgia, please donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds.