Since the Supreme Court issued their decision on Dobbs, and subsequently overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling, there has been a lot of discussion about the pre-born across America. In some states — specifically blue ones — you can see a doubling down on the ability to murder a child; other states — the really red ones — you can see attempts to ban abortions and to recognize that life begins at conception. In the states that are recognizing the beginning of life at conception the debate is generally about if there should be exceptions and penalties for those who would murder their own child. While these debates are worth exploring, I want to look at the debate that is happening in the states that are more in the middle of the political spectrum, specifically I want to look at Iowa.
Iowa is an interesting state politically and culturally, while it has a midwestern conservative bend it also is not too far removed from being considered a swing state (2016). Currently, the conservative bend has taken root as more and more republicans have been elected. Iowa has a republican controlled state House and Senate as well as a republican Governor. There is nothing that can be done legislatively outside of the republican part and consequently there is nothing the republican party cannot do legislatively. Simply put, anything that does or does not happen in the state of Iowa politically has to go through the republican party. All of this would lead you to believe that Iowa would be like many of the other states that are recognizing life as beginning at conception, but that is not where the debate has started in Iowa — the debate has started with the fetal heartbeat.
Governor Reynolds announced the first steps in her plan to protect the pre-born would be to get the Iowa courts to lift the injunction on the heartbeat bill that was previously passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor in 2018. There are two questions that come from this decision, 1. Is it right? And 2. Does it make strategic sense?
No, the heartbeat bill is not morally or ethically right. As Christians we know that the Bible teaches us that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.), we are formed in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13 For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.), and we are known by God even before we are conceived (Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.). All of this points to the simple fact that we recognize life as early as possible — at conception.
Life at conception is also consistent with science as Dr. Keith L. Moore points out in his book The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, “Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoo development) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” This is consistent with embryologists Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller as they said in Human Embryology and Teratology, “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.” At conception every child has their very own genetic code that is distinct from their mother and possess all four criteria for a cell to be considered as having biological life: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.
Ethically and scientifically the fetal heartbeat fails as a marker for the beginning of life, yet it has often been championed and is being debated in Iowa right now. Why? Well I’m glad you asked! It comes down to the second question, “Does the heartbeat bill make strategic sense?” While there are a plethora of opinions on the answer to that question — and many that are contrary to my answer — I want to present to you why I believe the heartbeat bill is a terrible strategy for ending abortion.
First, let me lay out why many like the heartbeat bill to end abortion. The two reasons most people argue that the heartbeat bill is good strategy are that it is logically consistent as the next step in the framework of incrementalism (the idea that the best way to stop abortion is small steps and inching towards no abortions) and it has easy and effective rhetoric that can be attached to it. The incremental framework insists that a great majority of hearts and minds must be moved to agree that abortion is wrong before a law can be made to outlaw abortion. Hearts and minds generally need to be convinced so a pithy argument that usually sounds something like this is used, “We pronounce people dead when their hearts stop beating, so we ought to pronounce them alive when their hearts start beating!” After that statement you can generally hear those who care deeply about their pre-born neighbor give a cheer or an “amen!”
We can detect a fetal heartbeat somewhere between 4-6 weeks into a pregnancy so you are definitely getting close to protecting all of the pre-born— assuming the law doesn’t have all of the terrible exceptions. Then again, are you really protecting any child? In the frame work of the heartbeat bill no child is actually exempt from abortion, the mother simply has less time to murder her child legally. From a legal standpoint the heartbeat bill protects exactly zero children inside their mother’s womb.
What about strategy? Does it not make sense to get closer to ending abortion with such a powerful argument as “We pronounce people dead when their hearts stop beating, so we ought to pronounce them alive when their hearts start beating”? The answer is a simple, no. You see, the basic claim of the heartbeat bill and its rhetoric is a biological claim. If you biologically make the claim that life begins at heartbeat, I want to know how you can make a reasonable claim that life also begins at conception. Both claims are biological and they contradict each other. Life cannot both begin at conception and heartbeat simultaneously, one of these claims is biologically right and the other is biologically wrong. Simply put, these two claims contradict each other. As already noted biology points to conception as the point when life begins.
It is self-evident that a strategy is weakened when you have a contradiction in your premise. Interestingly, for this reason the heartbeat bill weakens both the incrementalist and abolitionist strategy to end abortion. For the incremental strategy you halt all movement in inching abortion to be illegal when you establish the rhetoric that life begins at heartbeat the appropriate response for the ignorant would be to believe that abortions have ended (you can’t murder someone who is not alive) or to distrust the incrementalist who is changing their answer on when life begins. For the abolitionist, it weakens his strategy because legislators only have a certain amount of endurance when it comes to social or moral issues. Out of exhaustion most won’t want to deal with the issue of life for a long while —this is ironic because they never seem to get tired of running bills for their special interests, but that is a story for another day.
Currently the iron is hot on the life issue and now is the time to strike! We must strike appropriately and strategically, this means we must move to abolish abortion and recognize the personhood of pre-born from the point of conception, as it is the only logically consistent strategy to end abortion. It’s time we get a pulse on the life situation and reject the heartbeat bill!