Ohio's 'Heartbeat Bill' Abortion Ban Is Now Law. Here's What That Means

The law bans abortions in Ohio after six weeks of gestation.

Jun 27, 2022 at 5:01 pm
click to enlarge Protesters demonstrate outside the home of Attorney General Dave Yost. - Photo: Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal
Photo: Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal
Protesters demonstrate outside the home of Attorney General Dave Yost.

Less than an hour after it was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a motion to lift an injunction against Ohio's "heartbeat bill."

And by Friday evening, the bill — officially called the "Human Rights and Heartbeat Protection Act" — became law.  
The law bans abortions in Ohio after six weeks of gestation. Previously, Ohioans had up to 20 weeks to seek an abortion.

It is called the "Heartbeat Protection Act" because physicians or other providers are required to determine if there is a detectable fetal heartbeat before conducting an abortion. If there is, the procedure cannot move forward.

The new law does provide two exceptions, however. An abortion can be conducted after the six-week mark if a physician finds the procedure:
  1. "Necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman."
  2. "To prevent a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman."

It can also be conducted if there is no fetal heartbeat. But the law does not list fatal or devastating birth defects as an exception to the ban.

The state lists three conditions that pose a serious risk to a pregnant person:
  • Pre-eclampsia
  • Inevitable abortion
  • Premature rupture of the membranes

It does not include:
  • "A condition related to the woman's mental health."
The law contains no exceptions for rape or incest. It also only applies to what the state describes as "intrauterine pregnancies."

Physicians are required to record and report the medical condition necessitating each patient's abortion and the "medical rationale" behind their decision. That documentation must be kept by the doctor for at least seven years.

Pregnant people are also required to sign a form acknowledging the presence of a fetal heartbeat and the statistical probability the fetus could be carried to term.

Doctors or providers who perform an abortion in violation of the law can be charged with a fifth-degree felony.

In 2019, a federal judge blocked Ohio's heartbeat bill, saying it "places an 'undue burden' on a woman’s right to choose a pre-viability abortion."

Judge Michael Barrett — who is the same judge who ended up dissolving the injunction — wrote in his ruling that many women don't even know they're pregnant at the six-week mark and that fact, along with the "logistical obstacles" faced when obtaining an abortion and the state's existing requirements, means the bill would effectively ban 90% of abortions in Ohio.

The concept of being able to hear a true fetal heartbeat at six weeks, upon which the law is predicated, is also contested by physicians.

According to Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB/GYN from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, cardiac valves don't even exist a six weeks of gestation. "The flickering that we're seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you 'hear' is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine," Verma told NPR in a recent story about heartbeat bills.

The NPR article also quotes another OB/GYN, Dr. Jennifer Kerns, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, as saying, "What we're really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity. In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart."

The ACLU of Ohio says it will be suing the state "to block the six-week ban."

Across the river in Kentucky, the reversal of Roe v. Wade triggered that state's own restrictive abortion legislation.

Kentucky's law bans all abortions, regardless of gestation time, except in order to prevent the death of or "the serious, permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ" of a pregnant woman. It does not provide exceptions for abortions in cases of rape or incest.

Gov. Andy Beshear spoke out against the ban on social media, calling it "extremist," saying "not having options for victims of rape and incest is wrong."

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*This story was updated to reflect the fact that Ohio's "Human Rights and Heartbeat Protection Act" does not list fatal birth defects as an exception to the abortion ban.