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The Tell-Tale Heartbeat

Allow me to pose a moral dilemma. You own a building that you’ve decided to demolish. You’ve gotten all of the legal permits and a demolition team has rigged the building with explosives. In addition, the team has set up sensors to make sure that no one is in the area at the time of the explosion. Then, just before the team pushes the detonation button, one of the sensors picks up a heartbeat coming from inside the building. A technician explains to you that the heartbeat could be human, and that the explosion would certainly kill anyone in the building. Do you go through with the demolition, or do you postpone it?

My guess is that most people would postpone it. But what if you searched the building and couldn’t find anyone, despite the fact that the sensor was one hundred percent accurate? Would you continue to postpone the demolition, or go ahead and blow the building up? My guess is, despite the inconvenience and cost, most people would postpone the demolition until there was no longer a threat to anyone’s life.

Now what if you heard of a bunch of other property owners wanted to demolish buildings that they owned? But the sensors near their buildings had picked up heartbeats too. Would you think, “Well, the buildings belong to them. They can blow them up if they want”? Or would you think, “Someone should stop those other owners because someone could be killed”?

This scenario illustrates the argument behind House Bill 125, Ohio’s so-called “heartbeat bill,” which would prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The legal argument underlying the bill is based on both a moral argument about the right to life and empirical, or scientific, evidence that a life exists.

Pro-choice opponents argue that the bill undermines a woman’s not-so-self-evident right to an abortion found by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. That decision relied on legal reasoning so flimsy that even uber-liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has major problems with it. It assumed an implied Constitutional right to privacy, and then, in an even more tenuous leap, found that this right to privacy includes the right to an abortion. Roe requires that abortions be permitted until the time of viability, at about 22-24 weeks into the pregnancy.

Some pro-life groups, including Ohio Right to Life, do not currently support H.B. 125. They instead favor an informed consent bill, which would require a woman seeking an abortion to be told that a fetal heartbeat had been detected and sign a consent form to terminate the pregnancy. They apparently believe such a bill would be more likely to survive court challenges which could erode gains from other pro-life legislation.

While not directly challenging the Supreme Court’s right to privacy, H.B. 125 does butt heads with the viability provision of the Roe ruling, by calling into question the applicability of medical technology from four decade ago. Fetal heartbeat monitors were just being developed in the early 1970s, when Roe v. Wade was decided. Today, a doppler can detect the sound of a fetal heartbeat around 10 weeks after conception, while an ultrasound can show a flickering heartbeat 2-4 weeks sooner. These advances in technology call into question viability as the medical milepost for abortion rights, especially since a heartbeat can now be detected about 3-4 months earlier.

Ultrasound evidence certainly provides more weight to the competing right of the unborn to live. It weakens the contention that a fetus isn’t a person, and demonstrates that it should be given significantly more legal consideration than a polyp, or a tumor, or some other type of growth, because none of those have a heartbeat.

About 29,000 abortions are performed in Ohio each year, 85% of those in the first trimester. Given the empirical evidence that modern medical technology provides, an honest debate about how to categorize a first-trimester fetus would arrive at the agreement that it’s at least potential human life. The question is, how much legal protection does potential life at this stage deserve? Right now, it has none at all.

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Third Base Politics is an Ohio-centric conservative blog that has been featured at Hot Air, National Review, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and others.


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