Stacey Abrams says there’s no fetal heartbeat ‘at six weeks.’ What health experts say

John Bazemore/AP

Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s Democratic nominee for governor, discussed whether a fetal heartbeat can be heard at week six of pregnancy and her comments sparked countless conversations, some heated, on social media.

While speaking in Atlanta at a panel on Tuesday, Sept. 20, Abrams said, “There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” according to a video clip that was widely seen online. The discussion occurred at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center.

“It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body,” Abrams added before the 12-second clip ends.

When one becomes pregnant, an embryo develops and grows until it is considered a fetus after eight weeks of pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic and other medical institutions and experts.

In the wake of Abrams’ heartbeat comments, social media discourse unfolded, including from one OB-GYN who disagreed with the politician’s opinion.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of former Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, critiqued Abrams’ comments and wrote “hearing my babies heartbeats at 6 weeks is hands down one of the most exciting, liberating and most beautiful moments of my entire life,” Sept. 22 on Twitter. She said that Abrams’ statement accused doctors of faking fetal heartbeats.

U.S. Sen. Dr. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, who is an OB-GYN and a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, characterized Abrams’ fetal heartbeat comments as “factually incorrect,” Sept. 22 on Twitter. “There’s no man behind the curtain. Babies have a real heartbeat at six weeks.”

Meanwhile, Trae Crowder, an American stand-up comedian who describes himself as liberal, said Abrams’ comments sent those leaning politically right “aflame,” in a video shared to Twitter on Sept. 22 that has garnered nearly 200,000 views.

In regards to those who maintain a heartbeat can be heard during the sixth week of pregnancy, Crowder said “it would be more accurate to say that you saw some flashing electrical impulses originating from a mass of cells that may one day develop into a beating heart.”

Alex Floyd, a spokesman for Abrams’ campaign, told McClatchy News in response to an inquiry on her comments that “Stacey Abrams has already stated her support for limits in line with Roe and Casey — and doctors have been clear that the so-called ‘heartbeat law’ is not medically accurate.”

“Heartbeat” laws refer to laws in place preventing abortions if a heartbeat can be detected, according to The Associated Press.

Abrams has previously said she supports abortion before a fetus is considered viable, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Fetal viability refers to when a fetus is able to survive outside of the womb.

What health experts say

“The language we use when discussing reproductive health has a profound impact on what people hear and learn,” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists writes online. The organization encourages people to use unbiased, “clinically accurate” terminology when discussing reproductive health.

Ultimately, there appears to be some conflicting information among different health professionals and organizations about when a heartbeat can be heard during pregnancy.

Dr. Ian Fraser Golding, a fetal cardiologist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, told NBC News in April that “while the heart does begin to develop at around six weeks, at this point the heart as we know it does not yet exist.”

According to the ACOG, it is “inaccurate to use the word ‘heartbeat’ to describe the sound that can be heard on ultrasound in very early pregnancy.”

“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,’” the organization writes online.

During roughly 17 through 20 weeks of pregnancy is when a fetus’ heart develops more, according to the ACOG, and can be heard through an ultrasound.

Because of this, the organization adds it is inaccurate to describe “the embryo’s or fetus’s cardiac development as a heartbeat.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine outlines what can be expected during the first trimester of pregnancy online and states “by the end of four weeks” an embryo’s “heart is beating” as it starts forming along with the circulatory system.

By the end of eight weeks, Johns Hopkins writes that “you can hear the baby’s heartbeat using an instrument called a Doppler.”

After Abrams’ heartbeat comments, it was reported that Planned Parenthood recently changed its fetal heartbeat fact sheet, according to Fox News.

Planned Parenthood says online that during week five through six of pregnancy, the embryo demonstrates “cardiac activity” that sounds like a beating heart through an ultrasound, “but it’s not a fully-formed heart — it’s the earliest stage of the heart developing” as of Sept. 23.

A search of this Planned Parenthood webpage using the Wayback Machine, an internet archive, shows that in July, the webpage contained a slightly different statement saying “a very basic beating heart and circulatory system develop” during week five and six of pregnancy.

What is heard during an ultrasound?

During an ultrasound in the early phase of pregnancy, pregnant individuals may hear the “machine translating electronic impulses that signify fetal cardiac activity into the sound that we recognize as a heartbeat,” according to the ACOG.

OB-GYN Dr. Nisha Verma, who is affiliated with the ACOG, previously told NPR that an embryo’s heart valves do not exist at six weeks of gestation, and echoed the ACOG’s characterization of what is heard during an ultrasound.

“The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine,” Verma told the outlet.

Verma, who also previously spoke with NBC News on behalf of the ACOG, said after 10 weeks of gestation, characterizing a “heartbeat” is a “tricky” matter given that it continues to grow and change during the weeks of pregnancy.

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