The fight over ‘heartbeat’ further inflames tensions in abortion battle


Good Monday morning, readers! Today’s edition is coming to you from the Cunningham household, where I’m pleased to report an 18 percent reduction since school started again in the time needed to get three kids out the door. Rachel Roubein will be back in your inbox tomorrow.

Below: Abortion ranks second among issues more important to voters in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll and Moderna has asked federal regulators for emergency use authorization of its omicron-targeting coronavirus booster shot for kids and teens. But first:

Newly-pregnant women hear the word “heartbeat” all the time

A “heartbeat” doesn’t exist early in pregnancy, abortion rights advocates and some Democrats argue as they combat a spate of abortion bans pegged to embryonic cardiac activity.

The heated debate was reignited last week, when Stacey Abrams told an audience “there is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks.”

“It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body,” said Abrams, a Democrat who is running for governor of Georgia.

Antiabortion lawmakers and groups quickly denounced Abrams and the furious back and forth highlighted how in the aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the battle over abortion will be fought word for word with precise definitions squaring off against popular understanding. Doctors say the sound heard during an early pregnancy ultrasound is a precursor to a heartbeat, not a heartbeat itself, whose sound is created by the cardiac valves opening and closing — something that can’t be heard until closer to 10 weeks.

But for women going through pregnancy, that’s not the message they get on popular pregnancy websites or even in their own doctor’s office. It’s common for OB/GYNs to check for a “heartbeat” on the first prenatal visit — and for women to experience an immense feeling of relief when a fluttering sound is heard. Consider this language from leading pregnancy websites describing embryonic development at six weeks:

  • “Baby’s heart is typically beating away by six weeks.”
  • “Your baby’s heart has started to beat sometime between week 5 and now.”
  • “Your baby’s heart isn’t fully developed, but cells in the heart tube have started beating fast, around 160 times a minute. You may hear the sound this week if you have an early ultrasound.”
  • Johns Hopkins places it even earlier, saying on its website that “the heart is beating” by the end of four weeks.

Government-backed websites in other countries also refer to a heartbeat by six weeks:

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