Media Repeat Junk Science Behind Abortion Ban Laws: Check the Science—There is No Heartbeat at Six Weeks

When media uncritically repeat the factually inaccurate and politically charged language of the anti-abortion movement, they create confusion, spread misleading information about abortion, and perpetuate stigma and bias against abortion—ultimately endangering lives.

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A Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota, in May 2019. (Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia Commons)

In a New York Times news story last July, national correspondent Sabrina Tavernise described the new six-week abortion ban in Texas as “outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.” Tavernise wrote that the Texas law bans abortion when “a doctor detects a fetal heartbeat, usually at about six weeks of pregnancy.” By doing so, Tavernise unwittingly became a tool of the anti-abortion movement’s strategy to mislead the public about abortion.

The New York Times is not alone. Other national newspapers, including the LA Times and USA Today, as well as television and radio reporters are using the medically inaccurate language of “fetal heartbeat” when referring to laws banning abortion in early pregnancy. This framing is based on junk science.

The Texas law bans abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, which is around four weeks after fertilization. At this point in pregnancy, an embryo develops a group of cells that gain the capacity to fire electrical signals, described by Dr. Saima Aftab as “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart.” Aftab is the medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. This electrical signal can only be detected by a highly sensitive ultrasound device.

That’s because, at this embryonic stage, there is no heart—and no heartbeat.

“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,” said Dr. Ted Anderson, the former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), in 2019. “Thus, ACOG does not use the term ‘heartbeat’ to describe these legislative bans on abortion because it is misleading language, out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy.”

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An ultrasound of an embryo at six weeks. (iStock)

Not only is there no heart and no heartbeat, there is no fetus. Any basic embryology textbook explains how when an egg joins with a sperm (called fertilization), it’s called a zygote, which then becomes a blastocyst at five days. At about day nine, the blastocyst develops into an embryo, which is distinct from a fetus. The embryo becomes a fetus during the ninth week after fertilization, or week 11 after the last menstrual period. By banning abortion at four weeks after fertilization, the Texas law applies before the embryo even becomes a fetus.

S.B. 8 attempts to mislead and confuse the public by defining an embryo and even a zygote to be an “unborn child.”

When media uncritically repeat the factually inaccurate and politically charged language of the anti-abortion movement, they create confusion, spread misleading information about abortion, and perpetuate stigma and bias against abortion, endangering women’s health and lives.

The anti-abortion movement has a long history of creating misleading and medically inaccurate language to refer to abortion-related medical procedures and medications, such as “partial-birth abortion,” “late term abortion” and “chemical abortion.” These misleading terms are part of a larger strategy to confuse the public and create the impression that abortion is dangerous to women’s health, which it is not according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The inaccuracies of the Texas law, repeated by media across the country, are part of a larger anti-abortion movement strategy to spread misinformation about abortion. In addition to inaccurate language in legislation, they do this through anti-abortion centers, often called “crisis pregnancy centers,” that attempt to dissuade women from having abortions by lying to them—saying abortion is dangerous and causes breast cancer, depression and infertility—all untrue says the ACOG. Anti-abortion centers tell women abortion—even in early weeks of pregnancy—causes fetal pain, which is incorrect says ACOG. They shame and stigmatize women and those who want abortions and try to delay them from seeking health care until it’s too late, even in cases where the pregnancy poses a danger to woman’s health or even life. 

The New York Times, LA Times, USA Today and other media outlets would be wise to adopt the practice of The Guardian, which updated its style guide in 2019 to use “six-week abortion ban” as the preferred term rather than “fetal heartbeat law” in order to better reflect the practical effect of the laws. If they use the phrase “fetal heartbeat,” they should always put it in quotation marks and immediately explain its inaccuracy and political slant.

Readers should demand media use accurate language based on scientific facts when reporting on abortion and other women’s health issues rather than anti-abortion disinformation.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.