No such thing as a fetal heartbeat at 6 weeks? Like most things, the debate is more nuanced

OPINION: Stacey Abrams caused a stir after making the assertion, but the medical community has long debated the merits of claiming that a heartbeat can be heard at six weeks. This hasn't stopped politicians with no medical training from using the arbitrary timeframe to pass abortion bans.

Ultrasound image of a 6-week-old fetus. (Getty Images)

Georgia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams created a stir when she stated, “There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks. It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body,” during a panel discussion at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center in Atlanta.

Her words were striking, even jarring, to pro- and anti-abortion advocates alike, but is there some truth to these comments? 

Abrams is not a health professional, so we shouldn’t hang on her every word from a medical standpoint, but she does raise a valid question as to why some Republican states have chosen the six-week mark as an arbitrary point for women to make decisions about abortions. 

After all, fetal heart chambers don’t even begin to form until week seven of gestation, and evidence of four heart tubes that will become chambers that connect to a rudimentary lung system doesn’t happen until about week 10. Defining when there is or isn’t a heartbeat can be tricky—the sounds you hear (or don‘t hear) may be due to cardiac activity or something else. 

The medical community has long debated the merits of claiming that a heartbeat can be heard at six weeks, but somehow a group of politicians with little or no medical experience came to this conclusion. The “heartbeat bill” as it’s called ascertains that once the fetal heartbeat is detected, the unborn fetus must be legally allowed to live unless there is a medical emergency that threatens the pregnant woman’s life. Georgia is one of at least 26 states that is moving to make ban abortions. 

Abrams’ comments, and the way she delivered them, likely stunned onlookers but once the shock of her assertions wore off, we were left with a socio-medical debate in need of unpacking. 

The Technical Tom side of me wants to say that Abrams is right—a fetal heartbeat at six weeks is a medical misconception that lawmakers are using to determine when the start of life, or more importantly, the point at which women should be “allowed” to abort their unborn fetus—but admittedly there is more nuance at play, and I am not qualified to weigh in on that decision. 

The reversal of Roe v. Wade has infuriated pro-choice advocates—a stunning admission that the government is willing to meddle with a woman’s right to make medical decisions for herself and go as far as to codify medical inaccuracies to do it. Anti-abortion advocates contend that all life is valuable and that the heartbeat is the first sign that human life is viable.

Medical professionals, including myself, freely use the word heartbeat to humanize the experience of childbirth, sharing in the emotions of the moment. Whether or not the sound of a heartbeat at a woman’s first prenatal visit is a pre-heartbeat or the sound of an actual heartbeat is a technicality that does not matter—the health and happiness of our patients always take precedence. We as a society, Democrat or Republican, should be leery of toeing the ethical line of weaponizing words or the technicalities of what is or is not, in an attempt to force a woman to feel a certain way about making a very important and personal medical decision.

Dr. Shamard Charles is the executive director of graduate studies in public health at St. Francis College and sits on the Medical Advisory Board of Verywell Health (Dot Dash-Meredith). He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as a senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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