MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama lawmakers are considering a stringent abortion ban that would largely forbid the procedure once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, something that can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
"If your heart is beating, that is an indication that you are alive. Let's just protect those unborn, alive children," bill sponsor Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, told a legislative committee.
Alabama is the latest state to consider tough restrictions, as abortion opponents seek to make a dent in the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. North Dakota approved a similar heartbeat bill last year, but a federal judge put the law on hold while the legal fight plays out in court. Proponents of the McClurkin's bill said it would protect the unborn, while opponents called it blatantly unconstitutional and destined to be enjoined by the courts.
The two sides squared off in a public hearing Wednesday before the House Health Committee.
JoAnn Cummings of Decatur said the proposal would ban almost all abortions in Alabama.
"You know with the right equipment the fetal heartbeat can be heard as early as six weeks, often before the woman even knows she is pregnant," Cummings said.
The National Institutes of Health's website for patients says a heartbeat can be heard at six to seven weeks. A fetal heartbeat can generally be detected earliest using a vaginal ultrasound, although McClurkin's bill does not specify a method for detection.
"If safe, legal abortions are not available, and women and girls do not view them as a possibility, we do return to the rusty knives and coat hangers and things that many of us can remember," retired law professor Martha Morgan told committee members.
Unlike past debates over clinic regulations and more incremental restrictions, this debate was directly aimed over whether abortion should be legal.
"You are protecting the lives of people who are going to provide to society benefits and blessings that would be missed otherwise," said Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program.
McClurkin agreed that the bill would ban most abortions in the state.
A. Eric Johnston, president of the Alabama Prolife Coalition, said some abortion opponents want to use heartbeat laws as a test case with the U.S. Supreme Court in the hopes of getting the court to revisit Roe v. Wade. Although, Johnston, who helped write the bill, said he thought they faced long odds to get before the high court.
"If there's a small possibility, then it may be worthwhile," Johnston said.
Three other bills seek to put new limits on abortion.
Current Alabama law requires women to receive information about abortion alternatives and possible adverse outcomes 24 hours before scheduling an abortion. One of the Alabama proposals would increase the waiting period to 48 hours.
Bill sponsor Rep. Ed Henry, R-Decatur, said it would give a woman more time "to make the decision that she will carry for the rest of her life."
"I believe there are a lot of people out there who aren't aware of alternatives," Henry said.
Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, called the proposal an attempt to shame a woman into changing her mind about having an abortion.
"These bills imply that we are stupid. That we don't understand and we can't make informed, mature decisions regarding our own bodies. That we need politicians to coddle us and say, 'Now honey, are you sure?'" Watson said
A third bill would require women seeking an abortion because of lethal fetal anomalies to be advised of the availability of perinatal hospice services. A fourth bill would require parents to submit a birth certificate, or other proof of parenthood, when giving consent for their daughter to have an abortion.