On a panel this week in Atlanta, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams fact-checked the popular anti-abortion claim that a fetus has a heartbeat at six weeks of pregnancy. Conservatives call their bills banning abortion after that point “heartbeat bans,” and plenty of media outlets still use the term, even though it’s medically incorrect.
“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” Abrams said. “It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body away from her.”
Conservatives, of course, immediately lost their shit, with Fox’s Will Cain calling the statement “QAnon-plus level.”
But Abrams is correct that there’s no real heartbeat that early in pregnancy. Not only do six-week embryos not have hearts, but the sound of pulsing cells that will eventually become a heart “is created by the [ultrasound] machine itself, which translates the waves of electrical activity into something audible,” per the New York Times. It is, really and truly, a manufactured sound.
The sound wasn’t invented for the purpose of controlling people’s bodies, but anti-abortion advocates certainly use it for that purpose now. The crusade started with laws that mandate pre-abortion ultrasounds and continued with crisis pregnancy centers that prey on women who are pregnant and scared, before later morphing into a campaign to pass “heartbeat” bills.
So, yes, Republicans are jumping on this comment and sharing the Republican National Committee’s video with glee, as if Abrams is promoting some sort of conspiracy theory. But she’s overall correct.
Sharing this clip also has the (likely intended) effect of sparking debate over the semantics of when fetal organs form, rather than the larger, more nefarious issue: that conservatives want to remove all agency from the living, breathing human being carrying the pregnancy. They want to pass a nationwide abortion ban, and many of them want to ban the morning-after pill, too.
The whole dust-up is also a reminder that doctors speaking in euphemisms hurts all of us. For decades, pregnant people have heard their healthcare providers tell them that what they’re hearing on an ultrasound extremely early in pregnancy is the “heartbeat” of a “baby.”
Of course, Meghan McCain had to weigh in via tweet: “Hearing my babies heartbeats at 6 weeks is hands down one of the most exciting, liberating and most beautiful moments of my entire life. Hands down. Stacey Abrams is a very sick person to say this and somehow accuse doctors of faking fetal heartbeats. Full stop.”
It’s beyond past time that doctors start telling women and pregnant people the full story about, not only what they’re seeing and hearing on an ultrasound, but exactly what procedures they’re having when being treated for ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages.
Last week, Chrissy Teigen shared that what she previously understood to be a miscarriage was, in fact, an abortion: In 2020, her doctors induced labor at 20 weeks, well before a fetus can survive on its own. People shrieked that inducing early labor to save the pregnant person’s life isn’t an abortion. Yes, it is. So is treating an ectopic pregnancy. Just ask the hospital administrators in states with abortion bans how they interpret these laws.
The stigma around abortion no doubt contributes to providers’ urge to gently tiptoe around what’s really happening—but when states ban abortion, and the country is bickering over definitions rather than the attacks on people’s bodily freedoms, we all lose.