- “Heartbeat bills” are misnomers because there’s no heart nor beating at 6 weeks of pregnancy.
- Doctors can only detect fluttering cells that will become the heart, and call it “cardiac motion.”
- A 6-week pregnancy is an embryo, not a fetus, and fetal heart development is a continuum.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The new Texas law banning abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy, like others like it, is often referred to as a “heartbeat bill,” indicating a cutoff point when doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat.
As Texas Governor Greg Abbot said in a Facebook video right before signing the bill, it “ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion.” The law is expected to be challenged and, if it prevails, will go into effect September 1, 2021.
But Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a family medicine physician and abortion provider at the Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston, told Insider “pregnancies this early do not have a beating heart” — and that’s a medical fact.
For one, a pregnancy that’s six weeks along is still an embryo. It’s not a fetus until the 9th week after conception or 11th week after the last menstrual period, according to Healthline.
Plus, most women don’t even know they’re pregnant at six weeks, let alone get a doctor’s appointment to confirm it.
“At six weeks, most women would not have any clue they were even pregnant if they weren’t carefully tracking menstrual cycles, and that doesn’t even take into account the millions of women with irregular cycles who might go six weeks or longer between periods as a normal part of their life,” Dr. Stephanie Ros, an OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of South Florida, told Insider.
She said at that point, the embryo is a quarter-inch long. “It’s barely noticeable on ultrasound, we often have to use transvaginal ultrasound to be able to see it at all,” she said.
What’s really happening is ‘cardiac motion’ from cells that will become the heart
The so-called “heartbeat” that’s detected at six weeks isn’t a heart nor is it beating. “There’s electrical activity within cells that will become a heart, and we see that on an ultrasound machine as a flickering that can be audible through the machine,” Kumar said. “We refer to that as cardiac motion.”
“Certainly different people have different feelings around seeing that and what that means,” Kumar added, “and that is up to each person to decide how they value that.”
Indeed, the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which represents more than 60,000 OB-GYNs in the US, made a similar point in 2019 in opposition to “heartbeat bills.”
“Pregnancy and fetal development are a continuum,” he said. “What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.” That tissue continues to develop throughout the first trimester.
Only in the past few decades has the technology been advanced enough to detect cardiac motion that early, Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, told LiveScience in 2019. The fluttering, she said, also doesn’t indicate the viability of the future heart or the pregnancy.
What these bills miss, Kumar said, is the true beating heart: That of the patient. “The person who is pregnant has a fully formed heart, a fully formed mind and brain to make a decision, has thought about their decisions, and is doing what they think is best for them,” he said.
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