The New York Times wants you to understand that the heartbeat of an unborn child at six weeks’ gestation isn’t really a heartbeat. The heart, you see, isn’t fully developed. It’s “only a primitive tube of cardiac cells that emit electric pulses and pump blood.” As for the sound you hear at an ultrasound appointment at that stage of pregnancy? It’s “created by the machine itself, which translates the waves of electrical activity into something audible.”
Leah Libresco Sargeant pointed out the essential absurdity of this (front-page! Happy Valentine’s Day!) argument:
This objection is quite odd. Yes, the Doppler heartbeat is the result of using high pitched sound waves to track blood flow and produce a sound you can hear.
By the same logic, an ultrasound picture isn’t “real” because it translates sound waves into a visual representation pic.twitter.com/f66x3yMTzZ
— Leah Libresco Sargeant (@LeahLibresco) February 14, 2022
Times reporter Roni Caryn Rabin continues:
Doctors are partly to blame for the confusion. Many physicians whose patients are excited about a desired pregnancy will use the word “heartbeat” to describe the cardiac activity heard on an early ultrasound. The word has even crept into the medical literature.
It has even crept into the Times itself! Here it is in 2013 (“Heartbeats are often detectable at about 6 weeks”). And in 2019 (“a Kentucky law … prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which typically happens around six weeks into pregnancy”). And in 2021 (“a fetal heartbeat could be detected at approximately six weeks of pregnancy”). It’s almost as though everyone used the natural and undisputed language to describe this phenomenon until the Times realized it was inconvenient to one of its most cherished causes.
But let’s skip back to the first sentence of the Times article.
The Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy is based on a singular premise disputed by many medical experts: that once an ultrasound detects electrical cardiac activity in an embryo, its heart is beating and a live birth is on the way.
The Times suggests that medical experts don’t believe “a live birth is on the way” because “the electrical activity picked up on an ultrasound at six weeks . . . does not guarantee a live birth.”
The Texas law is not premised on any such guarantee, a guarantee in which no sentient person believes. To the newspaper’s limited credit, it accurately quotes the actual finding of the Times, which is that this “electrical activity,” whatever name one chooses to refer to it, is “a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” Which, of course, it is, and which the Times therefore does nothing to cast into doubt.