Abortion rights activists from UltraViolet organize a light brigade outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 30, 2021, before the Court heard arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case about a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, long before fetal viability. Experts believe this could be the most important abortion case in decades and could undermine or overturn Roe v. Wade. Photo by Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
Dr. Gabrielle Goodrick has been a source of comfort for women dealing with unwanted pregnancies in the Phoenix area for more than 25 years. But an attempt to replicate Texas’ sweeping new abortion law that lets citizens police abortion restrictions could tie her hands.
Arizona is one of several states where Republican lawmakers are looking to enshrine anti-abortion laws identical to the one Texas passed in 2021 and that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to go into effect. House Bill 2483 would require that all abortions include a test for fetal heartbeats — which isn’t actually a heartbeat — and would ban abortions in which one was detected. The only exceptions are medical emergencies that threaten the woman’s life.
Doctors who perform abortions and anyone who helps a woman get an abortion would face civil liability. Doctors would be fined $10,000 for each abortion. Anyone who knowingly helps a woman obtain a procedure when it isn’t in response to a medical emergency, or isn’t following the rules around heartbeat detection could face a lawsuit and damages of $10,000 or more.
But the state wouldn’t be enforcing those rules: Instead, any Arizona citizen could file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the law.
Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature by a single vote. HB2483 hasn’t yet been assigned to a committee, but abortion advocates fear it will pass along party lines.
The problem with using heartbeat detection as a barrier to abortion access, said Goodrick, is that it can get tricky. The heart isn’t fully developed until 10 weeks, but activity can be picked up by an ultrasound as early as 6 weeks. These flutters aren’t necessarily heartbeats, either – but rather electrical pulses where the heart is beginning to form.
Part of the bill asserts that women should be made aware of the presence of fetal heartbeats to make an “informed choice” about whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Currently, abortion providers are required to perform an ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure and offer patients pictures and explanations of the ultrasound as well as the option to hear the heartbeat. The majority of women, said Goodrick, don’t change their minds based on this information and, in fact, most decline it. The reality is that women who choose abortion have already made up their minds. A 2014 study in the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal found that 98.4% of women who viewed ultrasound images still had an abortion.
“It’s insulting to their intelligence and decision-making capacity,” Goodrick said, of the idea that women can be so easily swayed.
Arizona law requires that women sign a consent form at least 24 hours before an abortion. The scarcity of clinics means that some patients may wait weeks before even the initial consultation and still they prevail, said Goodrick.
There are only nine licensed abortion clinics in Arizona that serve the state’s roughly 4 million women, said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios. A 2017 Guttmacher Institute analysis found that 1 in 4 women will have an abortion. The same organization found that more than 800,000 abortions that year took place in the United States, including 12,400 in Arizona.
Rios spoke at a Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee media call to discuss threats to reproductive rights ahead of the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
“The agenda to control women’s bodies will just keep going,” said DLCC President Jessica Post, “We have this extreme case in Texas (with SB-8) that’s a template for what may happen nationwide.”
HB2438, officially titled the “Arizona Heartbeat Act” is a close copy of SB-8.
The new bill isn’t the only piece of Arizonan legislation limiting women’s access to abortions. Rios, a Phoenix Democrat, noted that a number of pre-Roe laws already on the books in Arizona are currently being blocked by the Supreme Court decision. The oldest, from 1901, carries a mandatory 2- to 5-year prison sentence for abortion providers. More recently, a federal court last year blocked a new anti-abortion law that assigned personhood to fetuses and made abortions based on sex, race or genetic abnormality a class 3 felony. .
If the U.S. Supreme Court this year overturns Roe when it rules on Dobbs v. Jackson, as many are predicting will happen, those laws will go into effect.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, a non-profit abortion advocacy organization, noted that HB2438 is at odds with the greater part of Arizonan opinions. Republican legislators, they said, are out of touch with their constituencies.
“8 in 10 Arizonans (support) the legal right to abortion. It is clear that Arizona Republicans, who hold just a one-vote majority in the legislature, are not listening to the majority of Arizonans who support reproductive freedom,” said Caroline Mello Roberson, the Southwest Regional Director, in a written statement.
In the end, anti-abortion legislation affects disadvantaged women the most. The fetal heartbeat caveat means women need to catch their pregnancies early: An examination of national survey data found the average time of pregnancy awareness was 5.5 weeks, and late stage awareness was more prevalent among Black and Hispanic women. A 2016 CDC report concluded that 65.5% of all abortions were performed at or after eight weeks — two weeks after a “fetal heartbeat” is typically detected. Black women accounted for the largest share of abortions at 38% that same year.
If this bill passes, Goodrick said, it will push women who can afford to travel out of state for medical care — something that poor, rural and minority women often can’t do. Forcing women to carry unwanted children to term may lead to increases in abandoned babies or child abuse, and will certainly strain already struggling families, she said. A Brookings Institution analysis of National Family Growth survey data from 2011 to 2013 concluded that low-income women were five times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy than affluent women, despite similar levels of sexual activity.
Goodrick fears some women will resort to online searches for abortion medication or other unsafe abortion methods. Abortion care will go “underground” – a dangerous prospect for women. Ultimately, legislation that makes it more difficult to access reproductive healthcare has detrimental effects.
“Restrictions on abortion do not improve the health of women in any way,” Goodrick said.
***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there were 800,000 abortions in Arizona in 2017; that figure refers instead to the number of abortions performed in the entire United States, and includes 12,400 estimated in Arizona.
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