Dear News Media: It’s not a heartbeat when there is no heart

Kathy E Gill
May 28 · 3 min read

We’re inundated with headlines trumpeting the latest abortion ban. Opening paragraphs describe bans that kick in after detecting a fetal “heartbeat” about four weeks after conception.*

That’s ‘pregnant enough to stay pregnant’ according to male-dominated legislatures in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio. Doctors, however, advise women to wait twice that long to tell others they are pregnant due to miscarriage risk.

In news reports, journalists have been parroting one of the more emotional triggers used by vocal opponents of abortion: heartbeat.

What is the image in your mind when you when you read or hear “heart” or “heartbeat”?

I bet it’s something joyful like this:

And what do you feel? Love? Warmth? Health? Family?

But at four weeks after conception, an embryo has no heart, no developed organs, and is less than 1/4 inch long (5mm).

That embryo looks like this:

However that photo is misleading, because it’s not to scale. At four weeks post-conception, an embryo is about the size of a grain of rice.

Using an ultrasound, at this stage doctors can detect “a little flutter” in the area where a heart will develop, according to Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. Instead of a heart (remember, no organs yet), at four weeks post-conception the embryo has a heart tube.

But heartbeats — the kind your doctor checks during your annual physical? There’s nothing for a stethoscope to detect. There isn’t any “kind of cardiovascular system.”

Instead, “ultrasound technology has gotten good enough to be able to detect electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells,” Sarah Horvath, an ob-gyn with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told Wired.

It takes muscle to generate a heartbeat. British researchers reported in February that the fetal heart “does not have fully organized muscle tissue until the 20th week.” That’s late in the second trimester, in case you’re counting.

In 2011, Ohio legislators considered HB 125, which would have prohibited abortions “after a heartbeat could be detected: roughly 6 to 8 weeks after conception” (that is, 8 to 10 weeks pregnant). In the intervening years, technology has done what technology does: doctors can detect electrical signals even sooner today than then.

The single goal of these bills is for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade. However the minority who wishes to ban abortion in the US knows that pathos — such as leveraging terms like “heartbeat” — is an essential rhetorical tool needed to hijack reason.

News media could say no to agitprop framing.

News media could explain why the framing is misleading.

Instead, they have chosen stenography, to thoughtlessly repeat propaganda verbatim.

Thanks to Shasta Willson and Ann Ray for reading early drafts.

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*Pregnancy is measured in weeks based on the date of a woman’s last menstrual cycle. Assuming a 28-day cycle, this means at conception a woman would be labeled two-weeks pregnant. It is this calculation that is used in the six week pregnancy (four weeks post-conception) abortion bans. Many women are not regular or have different cycles.

Kathy E Gill

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Digital media educator, writer, speaker; sometimes public policy journalist; transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles. #rabblerouser #pushy