Total Abortion Ban Debuts in Congress

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced copycat legislation that failed last year in Ohio. King's anti-choice bill would amount to a total ban on abortion care nationwide.

King’s office confirmed that HR 490 marked the first introduction of a so-called heartbeat bill in the U.S. Congress. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on Thursday introduced the first federal “heartbeat bill” modeled on a failed Ohio attempt to end legal abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy—before many people know they’re pregnant.

“Heartbeat bills” amount to total abortion bans. They have been declared unconstitutional in federal court.

King’s office confirmed that HR 490 marked the first introduction of a so-called heartbeat bill in the U.S. Congress. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) introduced a forced ultrasound bill in 2011, but her measure did not ban abortion—King’s stated goal.

A King press release called Roe v. Wade unconstitutional, adding that under HR 490, “if a heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected.”

His spokesperson provided Rewire with legislative text specifying that an abortion provider “who knowingly performs an abortion and thereby kills a human fetus” without determining a heartbeat, informing the patient of a heartbeat, or proceeding regardless of a heartbeat would face fines and up to five years in prison. The bill includes limited exceptions for the physical health of the pregnant person but not for “psychological or emotional conditions.”

King worked on the bill with anti-choice activist Janet Porter, the Faith2Action leader deemed too extreme for Christian talk radio, the congressman’s spokesperson said. Porter was behind Ohio Republicans’ recent failed attempt to push through a total abortion ban. Anti-choice Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) vetoed the measure the same day he signed a 20-week ban into law, reasoning that the 20-week ban would be more constitutionally prudent. It’s not.

Porter persuaded King to act while both attended the funeral of Phyllis Schlafly, the notorious Equal Rights Amendment opponent, as People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch first reported in October.

“I gave him a packet and he has agreed to introduce a federal Heartbeat Bill, which would protect every baby whose heartbeat can be detected,” Porter said on a conference call at the time. “That will actually end abortion in nearly every case. Ninety to 95 percent of the abortions will be ended with that bill.”

Total abortion bans are among the nation’s most extreme anti-choice measures, and the courts have generally agreed. North Dakota’s GOP-majority legislature enacted a total abortion ban in 2013 that was struck down in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court last year wouldn’t take up the case, letting the decision stand.

The Eighth Circuit in 2014 blocked a similar Arkansas bill, the “Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act,” which sought to ban abortion upon the detection of a fetal heartbeat—as early as six weeks’ gestation—and at 12 weeks, with narrow exceptions for the life of the pregnant person, cases of rape or incest, and those that involve a “lethal fetal disorder.” Both the Arkansas and North Dakota laws ultimately attempted to overturn Roe.

King’s office will release information about next steps for HR 490 in about a week, his spokesperson said.

Presumably, the same U.S. House of Representatives panel that props up conservative and often racially biased anti-abortion myths may hear testimony on King’s legislation. During a Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice hearing in 2016, King interrogated a reproductive justice advocate over whether killing “partially delivered” puppies would amount to a crime in an apparent attempt to draw a parallel between puppies and Black babies.

King explicitly added abortion to his list of grievances against Black Americans in an interview with Rewire as he left the hearing.