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'Heartbeat' Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong

Added 05-14-19 07:06:01am EST - “Anti-abortion laws lean on the heartbeat as a defining moment of aliveness. But at six weeks, it indicates little more than cells and electrical activity.” - Wired.com


Posted By TheNewsCommenter: From Wired.com: “'Heartbeat' Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong”. Below is an excerpt from the article.

Last week, Georgia governor Brian Kemp—the narrow winner over Stacey Abrams in a contentious, sketchy election last year—signed into law a ban on abortions after more than six weeks of pregnancy. That made Georgia the sixth state to institute such a ban, and the fourth this year (Ohio’s elected officials put theirs in place in April), with seven more states kicking around the idea. It’s not even the most aggressive anti-abortion concept; the Alabama state senate is set to vote today on a bill that, if it became law, would make performing an abortion a crime punishable by up to 99 years in prison. They’re all part of a nationwide push, with more than 300 bills in 2019, to try to make the procedure illegal.

The political aim of so-called heartbeat bills is pretty clear. Some Americans would like to ban abortion altogether, but the Supreme Court says that’s unconstitutional. So they advocate for increasingly draconian laws that walk up to that line. Less straightforward, though, is the science. What the bills call a heartbeat—it's not that.

These bills generally say that a “fetal heartbeat” helps predict whether a pregnancy will result in a living baby; the model legislation many states use refers to that fetal cardiac activity as a marker of “an unborn human individual,” defining a moment where alive-ness starts. And, yes, it’s true that detection of cardiac rhythm is a marker for the health of a pregnancy and a good sign that it’ll continue—that, if everything works out, it’ll result in the birth of a living baby. “Detecting a fetal heartbeat can be a sign that there is a pregnancy developing, and that’s a sign we use to reassure people,” says Sarah Horvath, an ob-gyn with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

But beyond that, the science here needs a lot of unpacking. First, you have to note the use of the phrase “unborn human individual;” this part of the debate over abortion depends on whether you think a 3- to 4-millimeter-long, partially organized blob of cells is a human individual or not. It also depends on whether you think the government or the person in whom those cells reside gets to make that determination.

From there, the issue is what that “heartbeat” actually is. “At six weeks, the embryo is forming what will eventually develop into mature systems. There’s an immature neurological system, and there’s a very immature cardiovascular system,” says Jennifer Kerns, an ob-gyn at UC San Francisco and director of research in obstetrics and gynecology at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. The rhythm specified in the six-week abortion bans, she says, “is a group of cells with electrical activity. That’s what the heartbeat is at that stage of gestation … We are in no way talking about any kind of cardiovascular system.”


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