The Real Science of Fetal Heartbeats

Published February 14, 2022

National Review Online

One of the favorite pastimes of legacy media outlets over the past several years has been attempting to discredit the science of fetal heartbeats. Since 2019, more than a dozen states have passed pro-life heartbeat bills, prohibiting abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which usually takes place around six weeks into pregnancy.

Though nearly all of those laws were immediately blocked in court, one was not: the Texas Heartbeat Act. Despite facing legal challenges, that law has been in effect since September 2021 and early data suggest it has prevented a few thousand abortions in the state (though the jury is still out on how many of those abortions actually didn’t happen at all versus cases in which Texas women traveled elsewhere to obtain them).

In response to the advent of heartbeat bills, most major media outlets have developed a curious genre of “reporting” dedicated to debunking the science of the heartbeat in the womb. Examples of this phenomenon are plentiful, many of which Ryan Anderson and I chronicle in our forthcoming book.

A feature of this genre is placing “heartbeat” in scare quotes as if to suggest that no such thing exists. The outlets opt for unnecessarily clinical phrases such as “cardiac rhythm,” “fetal cardiac activity,” and even “a cluster of pulsing cells.” Many reporters have dug up medical experts — some of whom are abortionists but are not disclosed as such — who insist that the phrase “heartbeat” is misleading in the context of heartbeat bills, describing it instead as “a group of cells with electrical activity” and “fetal pole cardiac activity.”

Past Washington Post coverage has quoted unnamed doctors to assert that “what appears to be a heartbeat . . . is simply a vibration of developing tissues that could not exist without the mother. This vibration is a medical term called ‘embryonic cardiac activity.’” New York magazine ran a piece titled “Embryos Don’t Have Hearts,” referring to the heartbeat as “pulsing cells.”

But the New York Times has been one of the worst offenders. Its articles covering heartbeat bills have used phrases such as “the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’s heart” and “embryonic pulsing.” Just last year, four Times reporters explained that they would not use the phrase “heartbeat” in their coverage because “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.” And just this morning, the Times published an entire article dedicated to the subject, under the headline “Abortion Opponents Hear a ‘Heartbeat.’ Most Experts Hear Something Else.

“At this very early stage of a pregnancy . . . the embryo is the size of a pomegranate seed and has only a primitive tube of cardiac cells that emit electric pulses and pump blood,” Times staff writer Roni Caryn Rabin asserts, before attempting to debunk scientific literature suggesting that the fetal heartbeat is an important early marker of a healthy pregnancy.

“Doctors are partly to blame for the confusion,” Rabin adds. “Many physicians whose patients are excited about a desired pregnancy will use the word ‘heartbeat’ to describe the cardiac activity heard on an early ultrasound. The word has even crept into the medical literature.”

There’s a reason the word has “crept into” doctors’ offices and medical pamphlets: It’s correct. Even though Rabin is right that the unborn child’s heart usually isn’t fully formed until about ten weeks’ gestation, you can detect a heartbeat before that heart has finished developing — and the lack of a fully formed heart doesn’t discount that reality.

If new parents found themselves in a doctor’s office with staff who referred to their unborn child’s heartbeat as “fetal pole cardiac activity,” they’d rush for the nearest exit, and rightly so. Doctors use the warm, human language of heartbeat rather than “cardiac activity” in the context of pregnancy because when the unborn child is wanted, everyone is comfortable acknowledging his humanity. It is only in the context of abortion that we’re supposed to deny that humanity.

Though Rabin attempts to obfuscate and undermine it, significant research suggests that the fetal heartbeat is a helpful marker of health. According to one study, once an ultrasound has confirmed an unborn child’s heartbeat at eight weeks’ gestation, the risk of miscarriage is only 3 percent. Another study found that, among women with a history of recurrent miscarriage, only 3 percent experienced a miscarriage after a fetal heartbeat had been detected in a subsequent pregnancy.

Of course, it isn’t the heartbeat or a fully formed heart that makes the unborn child worthy of life. The human being in the womb is valuable even before his heartbeat exists, just as each of us is valuable regardless of how our heart is functioning. But pro-lifers have begun to champion heartbeat bills for the same reason that abortion proponents and their media allies oppose them: The language of these laws reminds us that the unborn child in the womb is a living human being, distinct from his mother.

This reality is an obvious threat to the claim of the abortion-rights movement that the entity in the womb is a clump of cells, a non-human, a parasite. The goal of debunking the fetal heartbeat and replacing it with sterile “cardiac activity” is obvious: Dehumanize the unborn child.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. @xan_desanctis

Photo by Luan Rezende from Pexels

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.

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