Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams made headlines last month when she challenged the pseudoscience behind “fetal heartbeat” bills, which prohibit abortion after six weeks, claiming that’s when a “fetal heartbeat” is detectable.
“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” she said.
Social media exploded with outrage over her assertion. However, she is correct. Proponents of restrictive anti-abortion legislation passed by states and proposed at the federal level claim the legislation is rooted in science. It’s not.
Here are four myths about pregnancy that anti-abortion activists are using to pass restrictive abortion legislation.
Myth 1: A fetal heartbeat is detectable at six weeks of pregnancy
In Georgia and other states, legislators have passed abortion bills called “heartbeat bills” that ban the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, claiming that this is when a fetal heartbeat is detectable by an ultrasound. Here’s the catch: Neither the heart nor the brain is developed at this stage of pregnancy. There is simply no heart to beat. What exists is an embryonic or fetal pole, which the Cleveland Clinic describes as “one of the first stages of an embryo’s development in pregnancy.” What the ultrasound is detecting is the electrical activity of these cells. They’re just beginning the process of development.
Detecting electrical signals in the fetal pole doesn’t necessarily indicate that pregnancy is viable. Ultrasounds can also detect fetal poles in ectopic pregnancies, which occur outside the uterus and are unviable.
Myth 2: A fetus can feel pain before 24 weeks of pregnancy
In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, which overturned federal abortion protections, Senator Lindsay Graham drafted federal abortion legislation with two wild inaccuracies about pregnancy right in the title. It’s called the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act,” which would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Let’s start with “Pain-Capable:” According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “the science conclusively establishes that a human fetus cannot experience pain until after at least 24 to25 weeks.” The ACOG explains, “Rigorous scientific studies have found that the connections necessary to transmit signals from peripheral sensory nerves to the brain, as well as the brain structures necessary to process those signals, do not develop until at or after 24 weeks of gestation.”
Myth 3: “Late-term abortion” means an abortion that occurs at 15 weeks or later
Part two of the title of Graham’s proposed legislation is also scientifically wrong.
Medically speaking, pregnancy is divided into trimesters:
- First trimester: conception through week 12
- Second trimester: weeks 13 to 26 of pregnancy
- Third trimester: week 27 until the end of pregnancy, anywhere from 38 to 42 weeks for a full-term delivery
The concept of “terms” was developed to help clinicians and the public understand “the optimal timing of delivery for a healthy pregnancy,” Catherine Spong notes in the journal JAMA. Spong is the Chief of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine and Paul C. MacDonald Distinguished Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She was on the working group that recommended updated definitions for term pregnancy.
She wrote, “the Workgroup recommended that births occurring between 37 weeks 0 days and 38 weeks six days be designated as early term and those at 39 weeks 0 days through 40 weeks six days as full term. They also recommended referring to deliveries at 41 weeks 0 days through 41 weeks six days as late-term.”
Doctors don’t perform abortions at or after 41 weeks of pregnancy. That’s why the ACOG discourages the use of the phrase “late-term abortion,” saying it “has no clinical or medical significance.” Instead, they suggest using abortion “later in pregnancy, for example, at 14 weeks of gestation.” Further, only a tiny fraction of abortions occur in the second trimester, which still isn’t considered “late-term.”
Myth 4: The “abortion pill” and Plan B are the same
For decades “abortion” was synonymous with a gynecological procedure. In 2000, however, the FDA approved an oral abortion medication called RU486 — two pills that, when taken together, can abort a pregnancy. It’s approved for use for up to 10 weeks or 70 days after a missed period. In 2020, the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit studying reproductive health, found that over half of abortions in the United States were medication abortions as opposed to surgical.
RU-486 is sometimes confused with emergency contraception like Plan B, but they’re very different drugs. While RU-486 terminates an existing pregnancy, emergency contraception prevents a pregnancy from occurring.
Emergency contraception is designed to be taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex. It primarily works by preventing ovulation. If ovulation has already occurred, emergency contraception may prevent fertilization or the implementation of a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. Crucially, if a fertilized egg has already been implanted before a person takes emergency contraception, Plan B will not work.
Abortion is an inflammatory political issue, and politicians often use inflammatory language when crafting anti-abortion legislation. Unfortunately, that can lead to the regurgitation of lots of inaccurate information. Just because something sounds like it’s based on science, doesn’t mean it is.