Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams caused a stir among conservatives this week for repeating what medical experts said about so-called ‘fetal heartbeats’ at six weeks pregnant.
“There’s no heartbeat at six weeks,” Abrams, who is leading a campaign centered on abortion access to oust Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), said during a roundtable 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 away from her.”
A clip of the moment has gone viral after being shared by a Twitter account led by the Republican National Committee, inflaming its supporters. Fox News talking heads cast her as an anti-science conspiracy theorist. Conservative commentator Meghan McCain called her 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 correct that there is no heartbeat at six weeks. At this stage of embryonic 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 opposed the use of “fetal heartbeat” rhetoric in anti-abortion legislation. The term is used to challenge abortion rights in Georgia and elsewhere. But doctors say that at six weeks there is an embryo, not a fetus, and it emits electrical impulses rather than a heartbeat.
A rhythmic sound can be heard through an ultrasound machine at six weeks. But according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), it’s “clinically inaccurate” to use the word “heartbeat” to describe this sound.
“In fact, there are no developed heart chambers in early pregnancy that this word is used to describe, so there is no recognizable ‘heartbeat’,” ACOG states. “What pregnant women can hear is the ultrasound machine translating the electronic pulses that indicate fetal heart activity into a sound we recognize as a heartbeat.”
An embryo has not developed enough to be called a fetus until about 10 weeks. And it’s not until about 17 to 20 weeks gestation that the heart chambers have developed and can be detected by ultrasound, according to ACOG.
Dr. Nisha Verma, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Atlanta, told NBC News in April that the sound people hear on ultrasounds at six weeks pregnant is made by the ultrasound machine.
“It’s an electrical impulse that translates into the sound we hear from the ultrasound machine,” she said.
So why do doctors sometimes call this pulse a heartbeat?
According to Verma, it’s up to doctors to use non-medical language to communicate and connect with patients. (Like using the term “heart attack” to describe a myocardial infarction.)
“I think it’s OK for people with a wanted pregnancy to come in at six weeks and see that twinkle and feel connected to that like a heartbeat,” Verma told NBC News. “There is no problem using the term ‘heartbeat’ alone. The problem is using this incorrect term to regulate the practice of medicine and imposing these artificial deadlines to regulate abortion.
Georgia currently enforces a “heartbeat law,” requiring that women cannot access an abortion once what it calls a “detectable human heartbeat” is present. It classifies electrical impulses detected in cells as early as the sixth week of pregnancy as heartbeats.
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.
The Huffington Gt