Heartbeat. What a powerful word. We all have one – that steady, sustaining, and beating rhythm works with all our other human parts moving us through this big and bad world. Heartbeat. It is a potent and loaded word conveying love and soul. It’s our common thread romanticized, strategically and maliciously, as the proof of life by anti-abortionists. But life is far more complex than just a simple heartbeat. To be a viable human requires so much more than a heartbeat. Life requires so much more. Why should a small and faint heartbeat be more important than an entirely self-sustaining person? A pregnant person. Heartbeats over a person. This is a false choice. Those who have whole and independent bodies should be more important than just a “heartbeat.”
Writing this is two proudly pro-choice women. We are southerners currently living in Ohio. We are mothers by choice. We are mothers for choice. We have had our own babies, and both of us have lost babies. We have held our babies and listened to their precious heartbeats and felt that incredible love. We understand just how powerful that is. But we also understand that not every heartbeat is a guarantee. We understand that we are more than just vessels or baby-making machines. We are self-determining people with the full rights and privileges of men.
In April 2019, Ohio governor Mike DeWine signed the Human Rights Protection Act, otherwise known as the “heartbeat bill,” both labels notably using evocative and misleading language. All across this country states are lining up to pass similar legislation, some more restrictive than others. One common purpose of them all is to end choice and personal autonomy. Many of these bills are proposed and by and large supported by men. Men who will never throw up, gain weight and bring life through their own bodies. As moms, we both know the toll it takes on your body. We know you have to want that responsibility. You shouldn’t be forced to sustain a simple “heartbeat” that doesn’t resemble personhood at all.
The use of a heartbeat litmus test for life is dangerous and wrongly describes the early months of pregnancy. It has been used all over the country to sow distrust in women, pregnant people, and their doctors. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans support abortion rights, conservative politicians and media are spreading untruths about this medical procedure, likening it to infanticide. They use vicious lies and propaganda to attack those who believe in self-determination with respect to their own healthcare.
Horrifically, those at the heart of this conversation are – at worst – villainized and made out to be baby-eating witches, or they’re completely ignored, at best. Historically, of course, women are used to being erased, forced into silent roles of wife/mother/daughter, bodiless and voiceless, stewards of men’s valiant progress and personal evolution. It is our bodies that bring forth life. Which is why it is OUR CHOICE that should supersede any other voice with respect to our bodies. You don’t legislate male bodies. We are not going to let you legislate our bodies.
To many of these conservatives, we are homemakers and babymakers. But no one mentions how we’re manmakers. You come from our bodies, these bodies you would legislate, preside over, and control. These bodies you scorn are the source of everything, the source of you. And yes, we have heartbeats too. Our heartbeats sustain us and OUR VOICE when we scream: My body, My choice. Our heartbeats are real, ringing in our ears and flushed with anger thanks to our country trying to deny our constitutionally guaranteed right to be autonomous beings.
At six weeks pregnant, the fetal “heartbeat” is no more than an electrical current pulsating in a minuscule tube where a heart might form. A heart is not present and neither is any other life-sustaining organs. The fetus has the actual qualities of a parasite. It thrives off the mind, body, and soul of the pregnant person who carries it in the womb. At this point the fetus represents potential. The potential to develop into its own self-sustaining human body should not outweigh the actual human being currently providing the electricity for its faint “heartbeat.” But yes, it’s full of potential.
There’s the potential for a heart, for a brain, for a spine. There’s potential for viability. There’s potential for a safe, healthy, welcomed birth. There is potential but there is no actual baby. No human life. Just the potential. No actual heart, brain, or spine. There is no human life involved in this pregnancy besides that of the actual human carrying the faint “heartbeat.” The potential of whom we should be worried about is that of the pregnant person, who could potentially become a mother or could choose not to follow that path. The pregnant person’s potential as an actual person is far more real than a “heartbeat” that may or may not survive and thrive in 6 to 9 months on its own.
Pregnant people are actual humans. These are our actual bodies. Millions of people are making abortion less taboo and showing how important it is to their own right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are sharing their “18-year-old college kid who made a mistake” story. Their “25-year-old date rape pregnancy abortion” stories. Their “40-year-old married couple choosing to not have kids they couldn’t afford” stories. They are trying to humanize their own actual heartbeats. They are making sure you hear them when they say, “It was my body. It was my choice. And it was right for me.” Our bodily sovereignty leaves no room for government interference. These are our bodies, and any legislation over them is an unwanted invasion.
There are myriad reasons a person chooses to have an abortion. Whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or even failed contraception, the pregnant person should have access to factual information regarding their options on how to proceed with the pregnancy. And if that person chooses to terminate the pregnancy, they should have access to abortion healthcare. Period. Anything else would rob a person of the control they have over their own bodies and lives. Anything else would make them the property of the state. Is this not the land of the free? Our bodies are not your property. Our wombs are not your land waiting to be forced to harvest at your will.
Choice is at the heart of freedom. To be stripped of the right to choose, even when those decisions are excruciating, is not only unconstitutional but inhumane. As history shows, outlawing abortion will not end abortions. Rich folks will still have them, and poor folks will too. Some will have the privilege of paying for the privacy of a “miscarriage,” while others will risk death in a back-alley out of desperation. Outlawing abortion will simply criminalize those who can’t afford the high price of privacy. It will lead to more deaths from botched medical procedures by back-alley ‘doctors’ or at-home abortions using wire hangers. Abortion will not end. It will just take away the freedom of choice with respect to responsible medical care.
Anti-choice legislation will inevitably harm and kill women and pregnant persons. We already see it happening. From Purvi Patel in Indiana, who was imprisoned for a miscarriage, deemed “feticide”, to Savita Halappanavar in Ireland who died after a hospital refused her request for abortion because of a law similar to the one DeWine signed into law in Ohio this year.
Again, let’s note how pregnant people’s lives are erased when conservatives write and sign these laws. We care more for the potential of life than a life actually and already being lived. Pregnant people, the life-givers, are not valued as anything more than incubators. What about their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Our constitutionally guaranteed rights are being violated when we can’t make our own choices with respect to our own lives. Why should we give up our schooling or our careers or our living, breathing families for a heartbeat with only the potential of life?
This isn’t about heartbeats or babies or the protection of life at all. This is about control. This is about criminalizing a medical procedure in an effort to control women and pregnant people. This will affect poor people and people of color disproportionately. They will be the ones to go to jail. They will be the ones to die. Nobody deserves to be imprisoned and nobody deserves to die for wanting to live the life of their choosing and not one forced upon them by legislators.
And these “lives” anti-choice rhetoric claims to care about are forgotten as soon they’re born, since these same politicians refuse to help with childcare and consistently cut funding for healthcare and food stamps and any other resource a mother might need to ensure her child – wanted or not – might have a better life.
These laws, with their deliberately misleading language, are dangerous. Roe v Wade passed because people were dying from illegal abortions. Abortion has always existed, but Roe v Wade made it safe by making it legal. This crazed effort to drag our country backward in time will leave a trail of imprisoned, wounded, and dead in its wake.
Abortion access saves lives. Actual humans with actual heartbeats.
Kenyona “Sunny” Matthews is a motivational speaker focusing on issues of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism. For booking inquiries please email email@example.com.
Mandy MacLeod is a feminist, a poet, and a mother of two from Houston, Texas. Among her passions are writing, reading, traveling, eating (especially chocolate), whiskey, and smashing the patriarchy.
(Picture from Women’s March 2019 – Cleveland, Ohio)