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Supreme Court Abortion Cases

What does fetal heartbeat mean?

Much of the discussion surrounding legal abortions in the US concerns a 'fetal heartbeat', but what does it mean and how is it weaponized in law?

A protester holds an anti-abortion sign
Kevin LamarqueReuters

Nine US states have passed laws banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, citing the "fetal heartbeat" as a reason that the fetus is a living human.

So what do these states mean by a fetal heartbeat, what does the science say about it, and what do these rulings mean in practice?

To clarify, it's not a real heartbeat

At six weeks, ultrasound scanners can detect the group of cells that will become the heart as they produce their first electrical pulses. However, this does not constitute a heart. "Fetal" heartbeat makes even less sense as a moniker, as unborn babies are not called a fetus until the eight week of pregnancy. At this stage they are known as an embryo.

Although a lot of political decision weighs upon the detection of this pulse, "by no means does it translate to viability of the heart or viability of the pregnancy," says Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami.

What do scientists say about the "heartbeat"?

"What we're really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity,"  explains Dr. Jennifer Kerns, an OB-GYN and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, "In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart".

Dr. Nisha Verma, who specializes in abortion care and works at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, concurs.

"At six weeks of gestation, [heart valves] don't exist. The flickering that we're seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you 'hear' is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine."

So when put under a bit of scientific scrutiny, the idea of the "fetal heartbeat", or better, the embryo heartbeat, simply does not hold up. So why does the idea of the heartbeat inspire so much support with anti-abortion campaigners?

How the "fetal heartbeat" has been utilized in 2021

What the six-week cut-off means in practice is that it is almost impossible for a woman to know that she is pregnant, effectively meaning in the states with the ruling abortion has a near total ban. The first flash point for this was Texas, which initiated the law back in September. It has faced numerous legal challenges, but none are more important than the Supreme Court decision in Mississippi.

The Supreme Court hears arguments from 1 December on a bid from the state of Mississippi to overturn Roe vs Wade, the landmark case which guarantees the right to an abortion in the United States.

In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that abortion should be allowed before viability (the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb, roughly 24 weeks) but Mississippi wants to drastically reduce that period. If their case is successful, it could pave the way for the Texas law to be made permanent, as well as for the other states that are seeking to restrict the rights of women.


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