May 21, 2024
Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams’s assertion this week that a baby’s heartbeat at six weeks in utero does not exist and that women who hear it at their doctor’s office are hearing a “manufactured sound” touched off an emotional debate about fetal development.

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams’s assertion this week that a baby’s heartbeat at six weeks in utero does not exist and that women who hear it at their doctor’s office are hearing a “manufactured sound” touched off an emotional debate about fetal development.

Anti-abortion activists accused Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, of twisting the science to fit a political narrative about abortion.

Pro-abortion activists jumped to Abrams’s defense, highlighting nuances in doctors’ understanding of fetal development that raise questions about whether the cardiac activity of a 6-week-old fetus is, in fact, a heartbeat.

‘NO SUCH THING’: STACEY ABRAMS CLAIMS FETAL HEARTBEAT AT SIX WEEKS ‘MANUFACTURED’

Abrams made the comments at an event in Atlanta on Tuesday, at which she argued the sound of a heartbeat doctors show to parents is “designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body.”

At six weeks, experts say a fetus’s heart development is underway and that its heart muscle is beginning to form.

But experts seem to disagree on whether the cardiac activity that begins at so early a stage is properly defined as a heartbeat.

“Between 5 ½ to 6 ½ weeks, a fetal pole or even a fetal heartbeat may be detected by vaginal ultrasound,” the American Pregnancy Association notes.

“Generally, from 6 ½-7 weeks is the time when a heartbeat can be detected,” the group adds.

Some estimates put the start of the fetal heartbeat even earlier in pregnancy.

Johns Hopkins Medicine states on its website that the “heart is beating” for a fetus by “the end of four weeks.”

Other doctors have said that because the fetal heart at six weeks does not yet have valves, it is not operating in the sense that is typically associated with a heartbeat.

How to define the activity that moves the fetus’s developing heart muscle at six weeks is at the center of the debate over Abrams’s comments.

“The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine,” Dr. Nisha Verma, an abortion-focused obstetrician-gynecologist who works at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told NPR in May.

Electrical activity is also what causes an adult’s heart to beat, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The debate over when the heart begins to beat caused a political firestorm.

Republican lawmakers ridiculed Abrams for making a claim that seemed to contradict widely understood perceptions about pregnancy.

But Abrams had defenders who backed her central argument: that fetuses at six weeks have developed so little that the focus, at early stages of pregnancy, should stay on the mother’s rights.

Amid the fallout, Planned Parenthood quietly changed the language on its website that described what’s happening to a fetus’s heart at six weeks.

The previous version of the website said fetuses had a “very basic beating heart” at six weeks of pregnancy. After Abrams’s comments, Planned Parenthood’s website then said, “A part of the embryo starts to show cardiac activity. It sounds like a heartbeat on an ultrasound, but it’s not a fully-formed heart — it’s the earliest stage of the heart developing.”

But the debate over Abrams’s claim went beyond the medical understanding of fetal cardiac development.

It highlighted the most emotionally fraught aspect of the abortion debate: At what stage of growth has a fetus become enough of a person to earn legal protection?

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Some Republican states have moved to implement laws that ban abortions after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, making the clinical definition of that milestone incredibly important to abortion policy.

But other Republicans have proposed abortion restrictions that have nothing to do with the stage of fetal cardiac development.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which is five weeks after doctors say a fetus’s heart has fully developed.

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