The Strange Pseudoscience of the Abortion-Rights Movement

Published September 3, 2021

National Review Online

The enactment of the Texas Heartbeat Act has exposed the pseudoscience undergirding the worldview of abortion-rights supporters.

Heartbeat bills such as the one in Texas are predicated on the fact that an unborn child’s heartbeat can be detected via ultrasound at about six weeks’ gestation. For a movement that defends abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is not human — or has no claim to rights — this scientific reality poses some difficulties.

An enormous number of the justifications for legal abortion are detached from science, declaring the fetus inhuman or not a rights-bearing person on account of its as-yet-undeveloped or underdeveloped mental or physical functions.

The argument for legal abortion prior to “viability,” for instance, rationalizes abortion before about 20 weeks’ gestation on the grounds that the unborn child’s lungs are insufficiently developed to allow for survival outside the womb. Therefore, on this view, that child can be killed prior to such development because it remains dependent on its mother. (Why this logic doesn’t allow for the killing of newborns or adults who are on ventilators typically remains unexplained.)

Philosophical justifications for abortion follow a similar pattern. In her famous 1973 essay arguing that abortion is morally acceptable, philosopher Mary Anne Warren asserted that it is wrong to kill persons, but that not all human beings count as persons. Under her criteria for personhood — consciousness and capacity to feel pain, an ability to reason, self-motivated activity, capacity to communicate, and self-awareness — unborn human beings do not count and therefore can be killed. (Critics have noted that Warren’s criteria exclude additional categories of human beings, too, not just the unborn.)

Many rationalizations for abortion are far less sophisticated. Take one, for example, that suggests that a fetus isn’t human until it is born — as if the birth canal magically confers humanity on an organism that, mere seconds earlier, possessed the exact same qualities as the crying newborn. This is the case for abortion at its most illogical.

But the heartbeat bills have brought out a particularly stark variation on this theme. In response to the fact that a fetus develops a heartbeat early in pregnancy, indicating its individual human body undergoing development, abortion-rights supporters and their cheerleaders have turned to euphemisms and obfuscation.

Reporters have begun regularly placing the word “heartbeat” in scare quotes, describing it with exceptionally odd phrases, and running entire pieces dedicated to exposing the “fake science” of fetal heartbeats. In a piece called “‘Heartbeat’ Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong,” Wired magazine describes the heartbeat as “cardiac rhythm,” “fetal cardiac activity,” and, my personal favorite, “a cluster of pulsing cells.” The article goes on to quote abortionists, billed as medical experts, who describe the fetal heartbeat as “a group of cells with electrical activity” and “fetal pole cardiac activity.”

This last phrase, which sounds a bit like something out of a horror movie, became so popular among abortion activists that actress Alyssa Milano demanded that the press refer to all heartbeat bills as “fetal pole cardiac activity” bills.

Time magazine obliged Milano with “fetal cardiac activity.” The Guardian updated its style guide on the advice of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — a powerful abortion lobby disguised as a medical group — citing the group’s statement 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 New York Times chose “the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’s heart” and “embryonic pulsing.” New York magazine’s The Cut ran a piece called “Embryos Don’t Have Hearts,” referring to the heartbeat as “pulsing cells” and dedicated to debunking the “unscientific” notion of a fetal heartbeat:

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.

The Washington Post quoted unnamed “doctors who oppose the legislation” 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.’”

The Post offered a similar notion in an article yesterday, again quoting anonymous “doctors opposed to the bills” who say that “the fluttering [i.e., the heartbeat] that is detected cannot exist outside the womb.” The Post appears to think it revelatory that removing an unborn child from the womb at six weeks’ gestation will result in its death.

In a piece yesterday, the New York Times insisted that the Texas heartbeat bill is misdescribed 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.”

These descriptions and related rationalizations of abortion are total pseudoscience. It is entirely baseless to assert that a heartbeat is required for an organism to be human, much less that a heartbeat is somehow scientifically distinct from a “cluster of pulsing cells.” From a certain perspective, every single human being could, in some sense, fairly be described that way.

None of this has to do with real science or real medicine, both of which confirm the humanity of the unborn child at every stage of development. It is rather a game, designed to do one thing and one thing only: justify, by any means necessary, the ongoing killing of inconvenient human beings before birth.

Far from being champions of science, defenders of abortion twist the facts of biology and push the limits of language to justify dehumanization.

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

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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