Doctors Call “Fetal Heartbeat” Misleading

The new Texas abortion law reads in part:  “A physician may not knowingly perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman if the physician detected a fetal heartbeat for the unborn child.”

The law defines “fetal heartbeat” as “cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac” and claims that a pregnant woman could use that signal to determine “the likelihood of her unborn child surviving to full-term birth.”

But reproductive health doctors say this is misleading.

“When I use a stethoscope to listen to an [adult] patient’s heart, the sound that I’m hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves,” says Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN.

“At six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” she explains. “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.”

“What we’re really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity,” explains Joanna Kerns, OB-GYN and associate professor at the University of California. “In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart.”

Kerns adds that “fetus” is also technically inaccurate, as an embryo isn’t typically termed a fetus until eight weeks of development.

Later in a pregnancy is when a clinician might use the term “fetal heartbeat,” after the sound of the heart valves can be heard, she says. That sound “usually can’t be heard with our Doppler machines until about 10 weeks.”

Read more at NPR