This month, we want to address how legislation banning abortion as soon as fetal cardiac activity can be detected, aka “heartbeat” bills, are perpetuated by a lack of understanding surrounding fetal development, and harms patients by stigmatizing a personal and necessary decision.
Dangerous and misleading information spread by anti-abortion activists has made it difficult for patients to navigate factual information as they wade through the countless attempts by Republican lawmakers to confuse and intimidate them.
We think it’s important to cover this topic now as we saw extreme anti-abortion legislation sweeping through the Tennessee Senate last month.
“Heartbeat” Bills = Anti-Choice Legislation
In June, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee passed legislation that would ban abortion as soon as the cardiac activity is detected— or as early as six weeks into pregnancy— after the Senate approved the bill backed by the Governor on June 19. This attempt to ban abortion outright is often termed a “heartbeat” bill, even though a “heartbeat” early in pregnancy is no more than an electrical response among fetal cardiac cells detected by the sonogram. Providers who violate the new law would face up to 15 years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000, and the legislation would force them to provide patients with information on an “abortion reversal”, even though reversing an abortion is not an approved method, and a study last year led to women experiencing hemorrhaging that required medical care.
Tennessee joins at least nine other states, like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana, and Utah, who have attempted to ban abortion as early as six weeks since 2019; many people don’t know they’re pregnant until six weeks or later. Lawmakers have continued to gamble with the lives of pregnant people by creating restrictions that make abortion so inaccessible — more than it already is — that for many, their right to have an abortion is lost. Worse, lawmakers hope these extreme restrictions will set a precedent that threatens our right to a legal and safe abortion entirely — a precedent that forces the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade entirely, the 1973 ruling which legalized abortion in the U.S.
But what does science say about fetal “heartbeats”? Although detecting cardiac activity can be a sign of viable pregnancy, at six weeks an embryo hasn’t developed a heart many people assume is creating the sound or image produced up on the ultrasound. In fact, according to OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Kerns, the “heartbeat” early on “is a group of cells with electrical activity.”
“That’s what the heartbeat is at that stage of gestation … We are in no way talking about any kind of cardiovascular system,” she said, continuing that our ability to detect a “heartbeat” as early as six weeks is merely a reflection of the way technology and ultrasound machines have evolved over the years — not the level of viability lawmakers are implying by proposing these types of bills.
OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunter wrote in response to Ohio’s “heartbeat” bill that legislators attempt to equate the presence of cardiac activity by “making a 4 mm thickening next to a yolk sac seem like it is almost ready to walk,” and included this picture below of a pregnancy at 6 weeks and 1 day:
“The fetal pole is between the two markers and is a thickening at the end of the yolk sac (the yolk sac is the circular blob) and contains the earliest ultrasound evidence of cardiac activity. I know some have wondered why not use the term embryo, but as it’s the fetal pole that is being measured I think the term “fetal” is technically fine,” writes Gunter.
Despite this, she says when people think of a “fetal heartbeat”, they aren’t picturing the image above — they’re thinking of this photo frequently circulated by anti-choice activists as inaccurate representations of pregnancy:
“The image above is an anti-choice version of an embryo, obviously not a faithful representation of size or appearance. If you want a real picture for a comparison, check out this link,” Gunter writes.
The way a fetus looks isn’t the only myth anti-choice legislators are perpetuating. Earlier on the blog, we wrote about the post-abortion syndrome myth as well as the abortion reversal myth. Check out these other posts to learn fact from fiction.
Our Experience as Abortion Providers
At Austin Women’s Health Center, we hear from patients every day who have been misled by dangerous and harmful abortion restrictions proposed in various states across the nation, and we believe you deserve access to accurate information when making this decision. Listening to a “heartbeat” when continuing pregnancies can be an exciting time for many people, but when deciding to have an abortion, confusion regarding what the “heartbeat” is, can unnecessarily complicate a decision that many already know is best for them— just as lawmakers hope it would.
During your initial consultation for an abortion, Texas law requires providers to offer patients the option to hear or view the “heartbeat” through ultrasound, but you’re not required to do so. Our doctor is there to answer any questions you might still have about fetal cardiac activity, heartbeats, and the misconceptions surrounding the two.
Let us know what you think, by sharing this post to social and tagging us in your comments!