September 5, 2021

Wednesday night, the PBS News Hour's John Yang said this in a news story about the U.S. Supreme Court's shadow docket overturning of abortion rights by refusing to stop the Texas law, the most punitive in the country, from going into effect: "[T]he new law bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually after about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women are even aware they are pregnant."

Part of that is true, the part where most women are not aware that they are pregnant. The other part, the heartbeat part, is pure spinning from the far-right extremist forced birthers. But it appears in national news story after story after story after story. That's a massive failure on the part of, well, everybody—but particularly the reporters telling these stories—to get their facts straight.

They are accepting without question the definition the forced birthers have given to these efforts, a term used precisely because it sounds sciencey and medical and real. It is not. There's just so much wrong here that there's a lot to unpack, from "six weeks" to "fetal" to "heartbeat. The part that Yang and almost all the others get right is that most people don't know that they're pregnant at this point, but there's even so much more than that.

First, the "six weeks." Because the moment of conception is an elusive thing to pin down in most cases, doctors use the first day of the last menstrual period as the starting point for counting. They've been using that calculation for nearly 200 years, since Franz Karl Naegele, a German obstetrician, came up with it in 1830. The calculation: establish the first day of the woman's last menstrual period, count back three calendar months, and then add one year and seven days to that date. Which is confusing as hell and is based on a 28-day cycle which many women don't have at all, and which is subject to change due to all kinds of factors from illness to stress.

Providers in Texas estimate that 85% of their patients are going to be denied care because of this law, because vanishingly few people are aware they are pregnant and able to schedule appointments to confirm that and able to schedule the procedure by the six-week mark. That's something Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissent, and proof that the Supreme Court needs more women of color, since she was the only one to use that fact to show just how extreme this thing is.

But the confusion about just how pregnant a pregnant person is is one of the things the forced birthers intended, and one reason they lit on "fetal heartbeat" as the point in time when abortion should be banned. So let's break that down. First, at this point the mass of cells in question is actually an embryo, not a fetus. It doesn't become a fetus for another month or so, according to medical science.

It certainly doesn't have a heart, or a heartbeat at six weeks. It has cells that are starting to organize. What can be detected at six weeks is not a heart. “At six weeks, the embryo is forming what will eventually develop into mature systems. There’s an immature neurological system, and there’s a very immature cardiovascular system." The rhythmic sound that can be heard 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." That's all from Jennifer Kerns, an ob-gyn at University of California, San Francisco and director of research in obstetrics and gynecology at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

Early cardiac activity—cells vibrating with electrical currents as they start to develop—is what is happening at six weeks. "What's really happening at that point is that our ultrasound technology has gotten good enough to be able to detect electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells." That's from Sarah Horvath, an ob-gyn with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Or in ob-gyn Jen Gunter's words, it's "fetal pole cardiac activity." It's not a heart.

But calling it heart makes people imagine an infant. "Using the word heartbeat here is an intentional obfuscation," Kerns says. "Hearing the word heartbeat plays upon people’s emotions … when in fact what it does is effectively ban abortions for many people, because many people don't even know they're pregnant at six weeks."

Horvath adds, "I do think there’s a deliberate conflation of terms going on in legislation in order to try to co-opt the science, or at least the scientific language. […]These bans are really just arbitrarily chosen points in time in a pregnancy that are strictly there because they want a complete ban on abortion care." Bingo.

Most reporters have been great at getting the "before a woman knows she's pregnant" part down, because that's easily understood and a widely shared experience. But using the word "heartbeat," saying as PBS's Yang did that the law "bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually after about six weeks of pregnancy," is just perpetuating bad science, bad medicine, and extremely deceptive politics.

We're going to be hearing a lot about this ban, especially when the look-alike laws start proliferating through Republican states. It would be a great service to everyone if the traditional media stopped accepting the deceptive, loaded, and false terms of the far right in talking about it.

Published with permission of Daily Kos.

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