The most extreme abortion ban in the US has just come into effect in Texas: the so-called “Heartbeat Act.” Among its many restrictions, the bill means doctors will not be allowed to perform or induce an abortion after six weeks, this being what proponents say is around the time a fetus's heartbeat can first be detected
However, doctors and medical experts say this idea of a "fetal heartbeat" is not medically accurate in regards to early pregnancy.
At six weeks into a pregnancy, there is no functional cardiovascular system, let alone a functional heart. The “beat” produced by the ultrasound machine is an artificial sound that corresponds to a light fluttering of electrical activity, not the beating of a pumping heart.
“When I use the stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heart, that sound that I hear is that typical bum-bum bum-bum that you hear as the heartbeat is created by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves. And at six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” Dr Nisha Verma, a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a physician who provides abortion care, told The Texas Tribune.
“[That] flickering that we see on the ultrasound, that’s super early in the development of a pregnancy, it's actually electric activity. And the sound that we hear at that point is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.”
"In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart. And so the term fetal heartbeat is pretty misleading when we're talking about what is detected early in pregnancy," OBGYN and associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, Dr Jennifer Kerns, told NPR.
In fact, "fetal heartbeat" is not a clinical term, Dr Kerns said. "This is a term that is not widely used in medicine, I think this is an example of where we are sometimes trying to translate medical lingo in a way that patients can understand. And this is a really unfortunate side effect of this type of translation."
This hasn’t stopped backers of the bill relying heavily on the emotive imagery of a heartbeat to justify the extreme measures, however.
“The heartbeat is the universal sign of life,” Texas Senator Bryan Hughes said in May regarding the bill he authored. “If a Texan’s heartbeat is detected, his or her life will be protected.”
The new law, signed by the Republican governor Greg Abbott in May 2021, has been widely criticized. Many people don't know they are pregnant at six weeks, as it is just two weeks after a missed period, which means in many cases the law acts as a total abortion ban.
According to Dr Kerns, it would be very hard for someone to know they were pregnant before this "heartbeat" sound could be picked up by an ultrasound unless they were careful tracking their periods. Instead, she says it's clear why Texas law uses the term "fetal heartbeat": "It's clearly trying to move the needle back to almost the point of detection of pregnancy with the goal of outlawing nearly all abortions."
The new law also includes no exceptions for rape or incest, although there is an exemption for "medical emergencies". It also allows any private citizen to bring a civil suit against anyone who assists a pregnant person seeking an abortion. That’s not limited to healthcare providers but could technically include cab drivers or friends who may take someone to an abortion clinic.
Other "heartbeat bills" have been passed in other states but have been blocked by federal courts before they could take effect. Many are already pushing back against the Texas bill. The non-profit American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed an emergency petition to halt the law, although the US Supreme Court refused to block it in a late-night vote on Thursday.
Others have taken to more creative methods. TikTok and Reddit users have attempted to flood a "whistleblowing" website that allows the public to report on people seeking or performing abortions in Texas by sending the site large volumes of Shrek memes, fake reports, and Shrek porn.