The term “fetal heartbeat” has become a common way to describe laws that ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy, when many women do not even know they are pregnant. But medical experts and journalists say this term is inaccurate and misleading, and that it serves a political agenda rather than a scientific one.
The term “fetal heartbeat” implies that there is a heartbeat or a heart at that stage of development. But that is not true. What is detected is a group of cells with electrical activity, not a functional cardiovascular system.
“There is no heartbeat at six weeks because the fetus does not yet have a heart. As San Francisco OB-GYN Dr. Jennifer Kerns told NPR: ‘What we’re really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity. In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart,'” wrote Judith Levine in The Intercept.
The term “fetal heartbeat” was coined by anti-abortion activists to evoke emotional responses and manipulate public opinion. It is part of a strategy to challenge the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade in 1973.
“The ‘heartbeat,’ it literally tugs at the heartstrings, it makes you feel like, ‘Why would you do this?'” said John Culhane, law professor at Widener University.
Many mainstream media outlets have uncritically adopted the term “fetal heartbeat” in their reporting, without questioning its medical accuracy or clinical understanding. Some have put the term in quotes or added qualifiers, but others have not.
In May 2021, the Associated Press published an in-depth piece headlined “‘Fetal heartbeat’ in abortion laws taps emotion, not science,” by staff reporters Julie Carr Smyth and Kimberlee Kruesi. A year later, Smyth was tasked with penning a Q&A explainer of current heartbeat laws. Like the previous article, this one put “fetal heartbeat” between quotes every time.
But other outlets have been less careful. CNN, Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, and PBS were among those who used the term “fetal heartbeat” without any clarification or context.
Medical experts and journalists have called for more accurate and responsible reporting on abortion laws, and to challenge the false claims of anti-abortion propaganda. They have suggested alternative terms such as “six-week abortion ban” or “early cardiac activity.”
“The term ‘heartbeat bill’ is intentionally misleading language designed to confuse people about what these bills actually do — ban abortion before most people even know they’re pregnant,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“Arbitrary gestational age bans on abortion at six weeks that use the term ‘heartbeat’ to define the gestational development being targeted do not reflect medical accuracy or clinical understanding. … Pregnancy and fetal development are a continuum. 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, president of ACOG.
As more states pass or debate these laws, and as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on a Mississippi case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, it is crucial that media outlets report on abortion with facts and evidence, not emotion and propaganda.
– The Press is Falling for Anti-Abortion “Fetal Heartbeat” Propaganda, The Intercept, May 27, 2023
– Doctors’ organization: calling abortion bans ‘fetal heartbeat bills’ is misleading, The Guardian, June 5, 2019
– Right-wing media lie about fetal development to justify Georgia’s draconian limits on abortion, Media Matters for America, May 23, 2023
– ‘Fetal heartbeat’ in abortion laws taps emotion, not science, Associated Press, May 14, 2021