“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks. It’s a sound made to convince people that men have the right to control a woman’s body.” Those were the words of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Party candidate for governor of the US state of Georgia, last week. The first election race is taking place in the United States after the Supreme Court overturned, in June, the decision that decriminalized abortion in the United States for 50 years, leaving for each the state decides autonomously.
Already contentious before, the abortion issue has become even more salient since the court’s reversal. As the start of the heartbeat is proposed by some as a limit to the termination of pregnancies, Abrams, who is in favor of abortion, thus questioned the limit. Another reason for the candidate’s manifestation is the laws of some states that require the pregnant woman to hear the fetal heartbeat, which could provoke empathy and motivate her to give up an abortion.
Abrams is wrong: in the embryo human, a cardiac tube that gives rise to the heart “already starts beating with peristaltic contractions at three weeks of development”, says on the first page of the first chapter the manual “Fetal Cardiology” (free translation for “Fetal Cardiology”, edited by Simcha Yagel of the Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Israel). If we don’t count these contractions as heartbeats, the primitive heart starts beating “about the end of the fifth week of gestation.” Therefore, six weeks is a clear period for the presence of a heartbeat, which has already been detected even before “as early as 36 days”, counting from the last menstrual period. of the pregnant woman, informs the manual.
From the fifth to the ninth week (when the aorta artery is visible), the fetal heartbeat, which starts at a rate of 110 beats per minute, increase in frequency rapidly to about 170, then drop to a plateau starting at six months of to 160 beats per minute.
Why deny it?
If pediatric cardiologists and embryologists already know all this about the heartbeat of the developing baby, why do Stacey Abrams and others deny the heartbeat at six weeks? It is a semantic dispute over whether the beating of a “primitive” heart has the same nature as the beating of an already formed heart. The same denial of Abrams has appeared in more progressive (and therefore more pro-choice) publications such as NPR (National Public Radio), the magazine The Atlantic and the fact-checking section of the newspaper The Washington Post.
Nisha Verma, an obstetrician and gynecologist interviewed by the newspaper, for For example, it says that the fetal heartbeat is different because “at six weeks the valves are gone”, so the heartbeat “is actually electrical activity, and the noise you ‘hear’ is actually made by the ultrasound machine” . Jennifer Kerns, another obstetrician and gynecologist interviewed by the newspaper, says that “what we are detecting is a cluster of cells that are initiating some electrical activity”.
These semantic quirks can be pushed the other way. . Even an adult heart can be called a cluster of cells that have electrical activity. The aspects in which a fetal heart and an adult heart converge are being ignored: the rhythmic activity of the two, regardless of the audible sound they create, serves to make the blood circulate through the organism, and in the case of the fetus also through the umbilical cord. Electrical activity is something they have in common.
If there was a real scientific veto to call fetal heart activity “beating” because it has no audible sound, the manual of more than 800 Yagel pages would not use this term for what is initially measured at a rate of 110 per minute at six weeks. In addition, the measurement of heartbeats can be done by touch, as in the wrist, evidencing the lack of requirement for the presence of a sound.
To make matters worse, as radiologist Pradheep Shanker told National Review, the two obstetricians heard by Washington Post are wrong about the operation of the machine of ultrasound. The machine is unable to detect electrical signals. It emits sounds inaudible to humans to detect distances between physical structures in the pregnant woman’s womb, through the echo, generating the two-dimensional image. And it is able to capture the sound of the fetal heartbeat, too.
For Shanker, “nothing in the science about it has changed, only the policy has changed”. “Reporters, including so-called fact checkers, are purposely ignoring a demonstrable scientific fact to produce the results they want”, he concludes.
Science will not answer the most important question
As in the case of Minister Fachin’s decision that restricted access to weapons in Brazil, appeals to science will not respond to the ethical controversies surrounding abortion. It is noteworthy, however, that participants on either side of these ethical and political discussions falsify the scientific facts or perform semantic contortions about them. No amount of study of the details of heartbeats answers whether they are what matter most to the most pressing problem: whether a state or a society should treat as a person worthy of the right to life every human being at any stage of development from conception, or whether this right is negotiable on behalf of other interests depending on the shape of the embryo, the presence or absence of a heartbeat, the presence or absence of a brain and its activity, etc. Dealing only with the scientific aspects is postponing the debate.