Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams caused a stir among conservatives this week for repeating what medical experts said about the so-called “fetal heartbeat” at six weeks of pregnancy.
“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” Abrams, who is leading a campaign focused on abortion access to remove Georgia Gov. Told During a panel discussion in Atlanta on Tuesday. “It’s a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have a right to take a woman’s body away from her.”
After a clip of the moment went viral shared by a twitter account Run by the Republican National Committee, provoking his followers. Talking heads on Fox News cast him as an anti-science conspiracy theorist. Conservative commentator Meghan McCain called him A “very sick person”, noting that she heard her baby’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 dams hate unborn babies?”
But according to obstetricians and gynecologists, Abrams is right to say that there is no heartbeat at six weeks. At that stage of embryonic development, the chambers and valves of the heart—the opening and closing of which produce the sound of a heartbeat—are not yet present.
Abrams was arguing against the use of “fetal heartbeat” rhetoric in anti-abortion legislation. The term is used in Georgia and elsewhere to combat abortion rights. But doctors say that at six weeks there is a fetus, not a fetus, and it emits electrical pulses instead of a heartbeat.
At six weeks a rhythmic noise can be heard through an ultrasound machine. But according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), it is “medically incorrect” to use the term “heartbeat” to describe that sound.
“In fact, no heart chambers are developed in the early stages of pregnancy that the term is used to describe, so there is no recognizable ‘heartbeat,'” ACOG says. “What pregnant people can hear is ultrasound machines that translate electronic impulses that reflect the fetal heart activity into the sound we recognize as a heartbeat.”
An embryo has not developed enough to be called a fetus until about 10 weeks. And it isn’t until about 17 to 20 weeks gestation that the chambers of the heart have developed and can be detected via ultrasound, ACOG says.
Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN in Atlanta, explained to NBC News in April that the sound people hear during an ultrasound at six weeks of pregnancy is produced by an ultrasound machine.
“It’s an electrical pulse that is translated into the sound we’re hearing with an ultrasound machine,” she said.
So why do doctors sometimes call this pulse the heartbeat?
According to Verma, it is up to the doctors to use non-medical language to communicate and engage with patients. (Like using the term “heart attack” to describe myocardial infarction.)
“I think it’s okay for people with a desired pregnancy to go in at six weeks and see that flicker and feel connected to it in the form of a heartbeat,” Varma told NBC News. “There’s no problem with using the word ‘heartbeat’ on its own. The issue is using that wrong word to regulate the practice of medicine and to enforce these artificial time limits to regulate abortion. ”
Georgia currently enforces a “heartbeat law”, mandating that women cannot access an abortion, called a “detectable human heartbeat.” It classifies electrical pulses found in cells as a heartbeat at the beginning of six weeks of pregnancy.
The measure was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge 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 immediate effect.