Published September 22, 2022
The argument for abortion is pseudoscience all the way down. Nothing has exposed that reality more handily in recent years than heartbeat bills, which disallow abortion after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, usually at about six weeks’ gestation.
Those opposed to these bills often sound a bit like conspiracy theorists. Take a recent example from Stacey Abrams: “There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks. It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body.”
Abrams declined to share precisely how she believes this sound to be manufactured, but Washington Post “fact checker” Glenn Kessler took a stab at it for her:
Abortion supporters have made claims such as these for years, even before heartbeat bills were common. In 2017, an Atlantic article titled “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person” alleged that, because the heart is not yet visible, audible evidence of a heartbeat is not to be believed. The piece later received an editor’s note: “This article originally stated that there is ‘no heart to speak of’ in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form.”
Had the piece been published today, it’s likely that the initial assertion would have been allowed to stand. It was an early example of a now-common genre, produced by what we might dub the media’s “fetal-heartbeat debunking” squad.
Even as recently as earlier this year, abortion business Planned Parenthood acknowledged that a heart begins to develop early in pregnancy. Outside the context of abortion, we all acknowledge that getting to hear the heartbeat of an unborn baby is an important marker of a healthy pregnancy and a remarkable milestone for new parents.
But when it comes to abortion, proponents and their media allies have rushed to discredit or obfuscate the reality of the baby’s developing heart. The pieces come in several flavors. Some are billed as reporting articles on heartbeat laws, wielding absurd phrases such as “fetal cardiac activity,” “the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’s heart,” and “embryonic pulsing.” In one article, New York Times reporters asserted with no citation, “There is no heart at this stage of development, only electrical activity in developing cells. The heart is not fully formed until later in pregnancy.”
Other pieces include quotes either from abortionists or unnamed medical experts who allege that fetal heartbeats do not exist. In one such article, the Washington Post offered this bit of wisdom:
Doctors who oppose the [Georgia heartbeat bill] say that what appears to be a heartbeat at six weeks is simply a vibration of developing tissues that could not exist without the mother. That vibration is a medical term called “embryonic cardiac activity.”
Another piece in the Post again quoted anonymous “doctors opposed to [heartbeat] bills,” who argued that “the fluttering [i.e., the heartbeat] that is detected cannot exist outside the womb,” as if medical expertise was required to know that an embryo will die if removed from her mother’s womb.
Others are reporting articles dedicated to disproving the notion that fetal heartbeats exist at all. Wired magazine had one called “‘Heartbeat’ Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong,” with phrases such as “cardiac rhythm,” “fetal cardiac activity,” and “a cluster of pulsing cells.” Author Adam Rogers quotes abortionists, billed as medical experts, who call the fetal heartbeat “a group of cells with electrical activity” and “fetal pole cardiac activity.”
And New York magazine’s The Cut had a piece titled “Embryos Don’t Have Hearts,” which called the heartbeat “pulsing cells” and quoted an abortion advocate as an expert on the topic:
What is detectable at or around six weeks can more accurately be called “cardiac activity,” says Robyn Schickler, OB/GYN and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. The difference between “cardiac activity” and “heartbeat” may seem linguistically minimal, but Schickler and others argue otherwise. At this stage, she says, what doctors can detect is essentially communication between a group of what will eventually become cardiac cells.
Major institutions have crafted style-guide policies urging journalists to avoid clarity on the matter. The Poynter Institute offered this terminological advice:
At six weeks gestation, a fertilized and dividing egg is called an embryo, according to the Cleveland Clinic and other medical sources. Fetus is the accurate medical term eight weeks into gestation and up until birth. And that shoosh-shoosh sound? That’s not really a heartbeat, because there’s no heart yet. Instead, it’s an electrical impulse that will eventually become the heartbeat.
The guidance went on to praise the Times and the Daily Beast for using phrases such as “embryonic pulsing” and “after the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’ heart,” as well as for avoiding “words like baby, heartbeat and child.”
NPR, meanwhile, offered this guidance:
One thing to keep in mind about [heartbeat bills]: Proponents refer to it as a “fetal heartbeat” law. That is their term. It needs to be attributed to them if used and put in quotation marks if printed. We should not simply say the laws are about when a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. As we’ve reported, heartbeat activity can be detected “about six weeks into a pregnancy.” That’s at least a few weeks before an embryo is a fetus.
The Guardian updated its style guide according to the advice of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a powerful abortion-advocacy lobby, noting that “ACOG does not use the term ‘heartbeat’ to describe these legislative bans on abortion because it is misleading language, out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy.”
The elaborate song and dance from abortion supporters entirely misses the point. Heartbeat bills don’t assert either that the embryo has a fully formed heart at six weeks or that the presence of a heartbeat is what makes a human being. The purpose of the laws is to emphasize one central point: There is a human being here, one who, if left in peace, will rapidly continue developing all of the bodily functions needed to thrive outside the womb when the time is right.
The “electrical activity” detectable at six weeks is far less sophisticated than it will be later in pregnancy, it’s true. But then, the heartbeat of a newborn is far less sophisticated than that of an adult, as are most of the newborn’s functions. Does this give us license to off the baby, merely because his heart or his lungs has a ways to go? Surely I am no less a person than my neighbor if I exhibit signs of a heart murmur or suffer from asthma.
This monomaniacal focus on debunking the fetal heartbeat is evidence, in the end, of fear. Abortion supporters are afraid of being found out, of being exposed as defenders of the indefensible. They torture and police our language because they cannot change reality.
EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.