Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams caused an uproar among conservatives this week for repeating what medical experts have said about so-called “fetal heartbeats” at six weeks pregnant.
“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” Abrams, who is leading a campaign focused on abortion access to unseat the governor of Georgia. Brian Kemp (right), said during a panel discussion in Atlanta on Tuesday. “It’s a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body.”
A clip of the moment went viral after it was shared by a twitter account led by the Republican National Committee, inflaming its supporters. Talking heads on Fox News features her as a against science conspiracy theory. Conservative commentator Meghan McCain I called a “very sick person”, noting that she heard her own child’s “heartbeat” when she was six weeks pregnant. And Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a doctor known for spreading misinformation about abortion, wondered, “Why do radical Democrats hate unborn babies?”
But according to obstetrics and gynecology experts, abrams is right by saying there is no heartbeat at six weeks. At that stage of the embryo’s development, the chambers and valves of the heart, the opening and closing of which create the sound of the heartbeat, do not yet exist.
Abrams argued against the use of “fetal heartbeat” rhetoric in anti-abortion legislation. The term is used to contest abortion rights in Georgia and elsewhere. But doctors say that at six weeks there is an embryo, not a fetus, and it emits electrical pulses instead of a heartbeat.
A rhythmic noise can be heard through an ultrasound machine at six weeks. but according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), it is “clinically inaccurate” to use the word “heartbeat” to describe that sound.
“In fact, there are no heart chambers developed in the early stage of pregnancy that this word is used to describe, so there is no recognizable ‘heartbeat’.” ACOG says. “What pregnant people can hear is the ultrasound machine translating the electronic impulses that signify fetal heart activity into the sound we recognize as a heartbeat.”
An embryo isn’t developed enough to be called a fetus until around 10 weeks. And it’s not until about 17 to 20 weeks gestation that the chambers of the heart have developed and can be detected using ultrasound, ACOG says.
dr Nisha Verma, of OB-GYN in Atlanta, explained to NBC News in April that the sound people hear during ultrasounds at six weeks pregnant is made by the ultrasound machine.
“It’s an electrical pulse that translates into the sound that we hear from the ultrasound machine,” he said.
So why do doctors sometimes refer to this pulse as a heartbeat?
According to Verma, it all comes down to doctors using non-medical language to communicate and connect with patients. (Like using the term “heart attack” to describe a myocardial infarction.)
“I think it’s okay for people with a wanted pregnancy to come in at six weeks and see that flicker and feel connected to that like a heartbeat,” Verma told NBC News. “There is no problem with using the term ‘heartbeat’ by itself. The issue is using that incorrect term to regulate the practice of medicine and imposing these artificial deadlines to regulate abortion.”
Georgia currently enforces a “heartbeat law,” requiring women to be barred from abortion once what it calls a “detectable human heartbeat” is present. It classifies the electrical pulses detected in cells from six weeks of pregnancy as a heartbeat.
The measure was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional after it was first passed in 2019. However, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in July, a federal appeals court said the restrictive law could take effect immediately.