Advertisement
News by VICE

So-Called "Heartbeat Bills" Are a Lie, and Doctors Want You to Stop Calling Them That

The science behind laws banning abortion after a fetal "heartbeat" is detected is inaccurate.

by Emma Ockerman
Jun 5 2019, 3:26pm

Cover: Handmaid's Tale-themed protesters march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 25, 2019, to protest the then-proposed "heartbeat bill" that would ban abortion after 6 weeks in that state. (Photo by Emily KASK / AFP) (Photo credit should read EMILY KASK/AFP/Getty Images)

The largest organization of obstetricians and gynecologists in the U.S. has spoken out against the inaccurate labeling of anti-abortion legislation sometimes called “heartbeat bills.”

That term isn’t medically correct, Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Guardian. “What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops,” he said.

The bills ban abortion after the detection of a fetal “heartbeat,” which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Dubbed “heartbeat bills” by anti-abortion activists and lawmakers, they’ve been passed in a slew of conservative states over the past few months. Abortion-rights activists criticize the laws as an effective ban on the procedure since many women don’t yet know they’re pregnant at six weeks.

Anderson said the college, which represents 58,000 physicians, refuses to refer to such legislation as a “heartbeat” bill, as that’s “out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy.”

Read more: Extremists are winning the war on abortion.

This isn’t the first time the medical accuracy of the “heartbeat bills” has been disputed, but that hasn’t stopped anti-abortion legislators in several states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, and Ohio from passing such laws this year. The chief aim of the bills — none of which have gone into effect — might not be anatomical accuracy, anyway. Anti-abortion legislators have been open about their hopes that a legal challenge to the bills will take the legislation to the Supreme Court, possibly overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. There are now upwards of 20 legal challenges to laws aimed at restricting abortion access winding their way through the judicial system.

The Supreme Court, which now hosts a conservative majority, has repeatedly held that a woman has the right to an abortion before a fetus is considered “viable,” which generally occurs 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

When a pulsing sound is first detected, it is really just “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,” Jennifer Kerns, an OB-GYN at UC San Francisco, told WIRED in May.

Read more: Here's how Democrats can turn Roe v. Wade into law.

This isn’t the first time the college has spoken out about anti-abortion rhetoric on behalf of its physicians, especially since several recently introduced bills would impose criminal penalties on doctors who perform abortions after six weeks.

In April, the organization released a statement denouncing “inflammatory language that can contribute to or encourage hostility or violence toward doctors, other medical professionals or individuals seeking or receiving health care.” That was after President Donald Trump claimed during a Wisconsin rally that there are cases where doctors determine “whether or not they will execute” a baby after it’s born. (That doesn’t happen.)

Cover: Handmaid's Tale-themed protesters march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 25, 2019, to protest the then-proposed "heartbeat bill" that would ban abortion after 6 weeks in that state. (Photo by Emily KASK / AFP) (Photo credit should read EMILY KASK/AFP/Getty Images)