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Explainer: How the federal heartbeat bill seeks to protect preborn children

In 2023, the federal heartbeat bill, the Heartbeat Protection Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives. It aims to protect the lives of preborn children from the moment their heart begins to beat, outlawing nearly all abortions that take place after about two months of pregnancy. Of the legislation currently filed in Congress, the heartbeat bill is the most restrictive federal bill prohibiting abortion on the basis of gestational limits. 

What new process would doctors abide by if the heartbeat bill is passed? 

When approached by a woman seeking an abortion, medical professionals would have to complete a three-step process to determine how far along the preborn child is in its fetal development. The steps are as follows:  

  1. The doctor must determine whether the preborn child has a detectable heartbeat. This is performed through ultrasound technology.  
  2. The doctor must inform the mother of the ultrasound’s results (a heartbeat is detected or not detected).  
  3. Based solely on the presence or lack of a heartbeat, the doctor will be able to confirm whether an abortion is legal or not. If a heartbeat is detected, an abortion would be illegal under this bill. 

Who will be held responsible if the criteria of the heartbeat bill are not met?

If signed into law, this heartbeat bill would be enforced by instituting criminal penalties for the physician responsible for performing the abortion including: 

  • a fine, 
  • up to five years in prison, or 
  • both a fine and prison time.  

Are there exceptions in the heartbeat bill?  

Certain exceptions to this bill still apply. If a mother’s life is actively endangered by a physical disorder, illness, or condition, or in certain instances where the pregnancy was the result of incest or rape, the bill’s conditions provide an exception. Requirements are set forth in the heartbeat bill which specifically address what is to be done in these situations to ensure the preservation of as many lives as possible. 

What is the path to passage of this heartbeat bill? 

The Heartbeat Protection Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in early 2023 by Rep. Mike Kelly. It was sent to the House Committee on the Judiciary, but after the initial introduction has not been brought forth for consideration. Similar versions of this legislation were introduced in 2017 and 2021, but neither progressed out of committee. The current version has been cosponsored by 79 members of the House, all Republican. 

Though passage of the bill is not currently likely, it is an important piece of legislation to help build support for protecting life and make the case that outlawing abortion and preserving vulnerable preborn lives is a national issue. 

Why support the Heartbeat Protection Act? 

Every person bears the image of God, and thus, is worthy of protection and dignity, regardless of age, level of ability, or stage of development. We believe that the murder of a preborn child directly contradicts God’s teachings on the protection and treatment of people, who are inherently valuable and made in his image. This conviction was expressed in a resolution adopted at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in 2018, which reads in part as follows: 

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas, Texas, June 12–13, 2018, reaffirm the sacredness and full dignity and worthiness of respect and Christian love for every single human being, without any reservation whatsoever; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we affirm the full dignity of every unborn child and denounce every act of abortion except to save the mother’s physical life; and be it further

As it has for decades, the ERLC continues to advocate and pray for the complete end of abortion while supporting legislation that saves as many lives as possible now, including the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and the Heartbeat Protection Act

Currently, there is no federal legislation that has been introduced to completely prohibit abortion through all life stages, making the Heartbeat Protection Act the most restrictive gestational limits-based legislation yet introduced in the current Congress.

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