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A sonogram machine was placed in the front row during Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing on HR 490, the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017 which would criminalize abortion at roughly six weeks.

Roughly halfway through the hearing, it became clear why Steve King (R-Iowa), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Consitution and Civil Justice holding today’s hearing, had welcomed the sonogram machine: he showed a sonogram recording taken earlier that day, narrating the sound of the fetus’s heartbeat and its movements. Though the fetus captured by the sonogram was developed well beyond six weeks (sonograms during the sixth week are generally transvaginal), it served its purpose of affect and spectacle. Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona), sponsorer of the 20-week abortion ban that recently passed the House of Representatives, said that he had never heard a more eloquent testimony than the ultrasound recording. The sound of the “heartbeat,” Franks said, “should speak to the hardest hearts.”


The ultrasound proved a key medical device for the House Republicans during today’s hearings, used as a kind of miraculous invention that can date the moment of life to the recorded sound of a heartbeat. “If the heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected,” King said in his opening statements. Though King indicated that life began “when sperm meets egg,” he and his fellow Republicans posited the detection of the heartbeat as irrefutable scientific evidence of not just life, but of citizenship as well.


“The constitutionality of this bill is evident,” King said of HR 490, arguing that Congress had the right to under the 14th Amendment to extend the equal protection clause to fetuses, or guarantee the “life and liberty of Americans living in their mothers’ wombs.” “Ultrasounds prove without a doubt that life is present,” King said, adding that a woman’s right to liberty did not supersede a fetus’s right to life.

King’s opening statements set the tenor of the subcommittee hearing. Democrats on the committee disagreed with King, of course. Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) called HR 490 a “direct attack” on Roe, adding that the recently passed 20-week ban was also “blatantly unconstitutional.” The “lack of exception for rape and incest,” Cohen argued, “further victimizes rape and incest victims by forcing them to carry to term.” But the witnesses at today’s hearings seemed to have little interest in rape and incest victims or the lack of exceptions in the bill for a range of maternal health issues.


Dr. Kathi Aultman, an Associate Scholar for the Charlotte Lozier Insitute, an anti-abortion advocacy group begun by the conservative Susan B. Anthony List, testified that she was a “mass murderer.” Aultman told the committee that she once performed abortions and had an abortion, but had subsequently become anti-abortion, said that she doesn’t “believe a woman can remain unscathed after an abortion.” She spoke too of an adopted cousin who was a product of a rape, born in a country where abortion is illegal, and taken in by Mother Teresa and her order. “Perhaps we should ask those who were conceived through rape if others like them should be denied protection,” Aultman said.

Star Parker, founder of Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) and anti-abortion activist, also spoke of regret. Not just hers, but she also referenced Nicki Minaj’s interview with Rolling Stone where the rapper spoke openly about her own abortion procedure. Parker painted Minaj as a woman who regretted her abortion (Minaj did not say that) who would have been protected by a bill like HR 490 (Minaj is pro-choice). Parker, too, spoke of the equal protection clause, likening the plight of the unborn to that of enslaved peoples. Abortion, Parker said, was a “civil conflict between humanity and convenience,” like slavery. There were other familiar themes too: Parker spoke of abortion as a “eugenics movement,” and Representative Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) mischaracterized the history of Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood.


In between the Republican claims for science and paternalism, Representative Pramila Jayapa (D-Washington), who is not a member of the subcommittee but came from the full committee and was, incidentally, the only elected woman at today’s panel, said that the bill had “no viability in the courts.” She asked Aultman if she believed “women’s rights are human rights.” “I think women have human rights but I don’t think that our right to convenience [eclipses life],” Aultman responded.


Then there were a few frustrating moments. Franks harangued Priscilla Smith, a Senior Fellow at Yale School of Law and the only witness called by Democrats, asking her if “D&E abortions are humane.” Smith, who had previously testified on the unconstitutionality of HR 490, said that a dilation and evacuation abortion would not be performed in a first-trimester abortion. Franks congratulated himself for her refusal to answer (she did answer, saying they were humane), making the essential point that today’s subcommittee hearing and HR 490 are neither about listening to women nor women’s health concerns. Smith had also testified that the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the Western world, but no Republican asked her about that.

Today’s hearing demonstrated, in part, the extremes to which anti-abortion Republicans are willing to go, juxtaposed with the quickstep between science, religion, and medicine that they’ve becoming increasingly practiced at performing. It’s a routine that’s bound to be repeated, as it was during the passage of the 20-week ban, one that embraces technology when it’s useful but rejects the recommendations of medical professionals and their observations when convenient. It’s a performance too that will certainly make the 20-week ban more palatable to less extreme Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats, and it’s worth watching closely.

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