Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams caused a stir among conservatives this week for repeating what medical experts have said about so-called “fetal heartbeats” at six weeks of pregnancy.
“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” Abrams, who is running a campaign centered on abortion access to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), said during a panel discussion in Atlanta on Tuesday. “It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body away from her.”
A clip of the moment went viral after it was shared by a Twitter account run by the Republican National Committee, inflaming its followers. Talking heads on Fox News cast her as an anti-science conspiracy theorist. Conservative commentator Meghan McCain called her a “very sick person,” noting she heard her own child’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 Dems hate unborn babies?”
But according to obstetrics and gynecology experts, Abrams is correct in saying there is no heartbeat at six weeks. At that stage of the embryo’s development, the chambers and valves of the heart ― the opening and closing of which create the heartbeat sound ― don’t exist yet.
Abrams was arguing against the use of “fetal heartbeat” rhetoric in anti-abortion legislation. The term is used to contest abortion rights in Georgia and elsewhere. But doctors say that at six weeks, there is an embryo, not a fetus, and it emits electrical pulses rather than a heartbeat.
A rhythmic noise can be heard via an ultrasound machine at six weeks. But according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), it’s “clinically inaccurate” to use the word “heartbeat” to describe that sound.
“In fact, there are no chambers of the heart developed at the early stage in pregnancy that this word is used to describe, so there is no recognizable ‘heartbeat,’” ACOG says. “What pregnant people may hear is the ultrasound machine translating electronic impulses that signify fetal cardiac activity into the sound that we recognize as a heartbeat.”
An embryo has not developed enough to be called a fetus until around 10 weeks. And it’s not until roughly 17 to 20 weeks of gestation that the chambers of the heart have been 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 ultrasounds at six weeks of pregnancy is manufactured by the ultrasound machine.
“It’s an electrical pulse that’s translated into the sound we’re hearing from the ultrasound machine,” she said.
So why do doctors sometimes refer to this pulse as a heartbeat?
According to Verma, it comes down to doctors using non-medical language to communicate and connect with patients. (Like using the term “heart attack” to describe a myocardial infarction.)
“I think it’s OK for people with a desired pregnancy to go in at six weeks and see that flickering and feel connected to that as a heartbeat,” Verma told NBC News. “There’s no issue with using the term ‘heartbeat’ on its own. The issue is using that incorrect term to regulate the practice of medicine and impose these artificial time frames to regulate abortion.”
Georgia currently enforces a “heartbeat law,” mandating that women cannot access abortion once what it calls a “detectable human heartbeat” is present. It classifies the electrical pulses detected in cells as early as six weeks into the pregnancy as a heartbeat.
The measure was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional 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.