Acrimony swamps discussion of abortion. It should not. Those of good heart should pause to ponder the Texas “heartbeat” law. It is less about law than heart, less about medicine than conscience.
Facts: The Texas law prevents abortion after science finds a human “heartbeat” – early as six weeks. The law’s implementation was halted October 6 by US District Judge Robert Pitman, an Obama appointee.
Last week, the US Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit, paused Pitman’s restraining order, allowing implementation. Still remaining is a decision on merits. Missing is what lies beyond this cerebral inquiry, the mystery of that heartbeat.
What is a heartbeat? Some minimize detection of the familiar, rhythmic beating of a human “heart” in such a small life. They argue it is inconsequential, peripheral, at best, just an organ.
National references go out of their way to say laws restricting abortion based on “heartbeat” are from states “partly or entirely in the Bible Belt,” a backhanded way of saying, faith not science is at work.
Interestingly, the first such bill was passed by North Dakota in 2013 – outside the “Bible Belt.” That law was set aside on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision imputing an “abortion right” to the Constitution. More state laws followed.
Since 2018, eleven states have considered “heartbeat” bills, and eight have passed them, including Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky, and – yes – Texas.
Notably, while those states have fewer “non-religious” citizens, America’s least religious state – Vermont – registers 37 percent “non-religious.” So, faith is not unimportant in shaping policy.
Others diminish laws based on a human “heartbeat,” arguing “fetal heartbeat” is “more a legal term than a medical one,” since doctors only say “fetal” after ten weeks. Yes, and so?
They argue only advanced medical equipment, including a “transvaginal ultrasound” or “Doppler fetal monitor,” make “embryonic cardiac activity” detectable. Yes, and so?
They contend women can be “unaware” of a pregnancy at six weeks, and most who decide to abort – do so after six weeks. Yes, and so?
Truth is, whether passed out of religious conviction or conscience, whether heartbeat detection requires sophisticated equipment or not, whether a heartbeat is found early or late, it is a beating human heart – a life within a life.
And that is where the conversation never goes, but ought. What is a heart? Some will say, deferring to human physiology, just another organ. Others might offer a different view.
Wrote Antoine de Saint Exupery, in The Little Prince, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
His metaphysical sentiments echo in Mahatma Gandhi, speaking of prayer. “Prayer is not asking, it is a longing of the soul, daily admission of one’s weakness,” and “it is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” What is the unborn baby, if not heart without words? What is a disparager who claims religion, if not words without heart?
Then Roy T. Bennett, author of “The Light in the Heart,” suggests the heart is a repository for belief, while Milan Kundera, no stranger to heartache, reminds: “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” Or so we hope.
Lest this all look literary, consider “the fourth-century homilist … Macarius,” remembered by Frederica Mathewes-Green in “The Illuminated Heart.” Wrote the Saint: “There are unfathomable depths within the heart … God is there with angels, light and life are there, the kingdom and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: All things are there.”
Reverting again to medicine, consider another reality: The four primary “vital signs” are pulse, blood pressure, temperature, and respiratory rate, with each turning on – the heart.
Or consider this. If the human heart of an unborn child is small – so small we could miss it, should perhaps overlook its presence, function, and depth – how big is an adult heart?
Putting faith, love, and metaphysics to one side, the human heart is 300 grams. In a 150-pound adult, weighing 68,000 grams – that is a trifle. The human heart – powerful, central, and to which we attribute so much – is but one-226th of our body mass. Not much. Insignificant?
In the end, we think lots, debate with vigor our rights, indulge our emotions, inflict and incite, cross sabers and fight, but how often do we listen to our heart? And when, in the end – or in the beginning – did that precious heart start to be part – of who we are? When did we start to be?
If these questions are “without human answer,” that does not make them less important to ask – but more important. Not knowing is why we listen, and after six weeks when we hear, must then ponder what that means, the rhythmic beating of a human heart, a life within a life?
What does it mean? For sure, less about law than heart, less about medicine than conscience. It is about one little heart, his or hers – and upon listening to that little heart, listening also to ours.