The Ohio House just passed a “fetal heart beat” bill, which is the first step on the road to legislation that would ban abortion after embryonic cardiac activity.

The pro-life version of am embryo
The pro-life version of am embryo

Embryonic cardiac activity is typically seen by 6 weeks gestation (42 days into the pregnancy or about 2 weeks after a missed period), which is before many  women know they are pregnant and certainly before many have really had time to consider what being pregnant means for them. Thus this kind of legislation really has one goal – to eliminate abortion.

This type of bill has been tried elsewhere and while it hasn’t become law anywhere, typically because some politician decides it won’t hold up to in the Supreme Court against Roe. With that in mind, why keep churning these things through State Legislatures wasting tax payer dollars?

Possibly the “pro-life” forces that support this legislature think that if they keep throwing enough garbage that something is going to stick. If the balance of the Supreme Court changes to an even more conservative bench we’ll see flurry of these things, so testing out the kinks in advance might be a useful strategy. Also, chest thumping about anti-choice zeal is helpful to raise money for campaigns. But there is also something more insidious about these bills and it is the terminology “fetal heart beat,” because at 42 days it’s an embryo and it doesn’t have a “heart beat” it has cardiac activity.

Using terms like fetus and “beating heart” conjures up an image of a tiny human almost able to live on its own, something like what you see on the right (which is of course a massive graphic misrepresentation) .

Cardiac activity can be detected when an embryo is 3 mm and the actual visual isn’t very baby-like at all (certainly less convincing on signs and placards). To put the visuals in perspective here are some images with a more accurate depiction of a 6 and 7 week embryo:


And this is what it would look like on ultrasound:

Image courtesy of Dr Frank Gaillard,
Image courtesy of Dr Frank Gaillard,



To the average person who a fetal heart beat bill sounds a lot more like preventing a 2nd trimester procedure and a greater number of Americans oppose those. The majority of voters support 1st trimester abortion, so if you want the average person to think you are limiting 2nd trimester procedures repetitively talking about a fetal heart beat would be one way to do that. The more “baby like” the image the better, and so fetal heart bills sound more like saving close to term “babies” than restricting access to 1st and 2nd trimester abortion.

Gallup poll, abortion attitutes
Gallup poll, abortion views

The imprecision also contaminates legal cases, if a 6 week embryo with cardiac activity becomes a fetus with a heart beat to the general pubic then at 23 weeks a fetus seems a lot closer to term than the reality of being barely on the cusp of viability even with intensive neonatal care. This what happened in Purvi Patel’s case. The pretrial motions indicated her fetus was 30 weeks when it was 23-24, but the damage was done. The image that this was a 3rd trimester pregnancy was set. Shifting the paradigm of what sounds like a baby earlier and earlier has lots of anti-choice payoffs.

Using incorrect terminology isn’t just sloppy, it has a purpose – the babyfication of the embryo and it’s just one more back door way to erode choice.



Join the Conversation


  1. I must say this is interesting. Perhaps what you will hear next is that there is a baby as soon as fertilization of the egg by the sperm takes place. But it is certainly interesting to find out when exactly does the fetus become human.

    1. that is very much the case now and why emergency contraception such as Plan B is contested. Plan B does not cause an abortion; it prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg. To those pro-lifers, a fertilized egg IS a baby.

      1. If I remember rightly, yes, that’s why pro-lifers oppose Plan B, but no it doesn’t do that. It stops the egg being released in the first place. No baby not by any stretch of the imagination. Just more lies.

    2. A fetus is composed of human cells. It is as human as the dandruff we shed all the time. You are conflating an objective statement with a moral one. There is no point when “the fetus become human”, but there is a point at which we grant the entity that started as a zygote, developed into an embryo, then a fetus and eventually was born and became a neonate (and will continue to go through various stages of development) human rights. Currently that time is birth.

  2. Really interesting argument. Semantics clearly *is* important when dealing with these kinds of issues. I’d like to think that common sense would win the day but when you hear about the nonsense surrounding the anti-vaccine movement you can’t help but worry…

  3. Ugh, yes, I agree. I’ve experienced a lot in the past three months in OBGYN in terms of women requesting terminations and I’ve seen how it is never an easy choice for them. It makes me so angry to think that some politician in an office far away might want to keep women from making their own decisions. It’s never simple, and while semantics has a place in determining one’s own beliefs and values, we shouldn’t use it to complicate the law.

  4. Thank you for posting the real photos and pictures of what a 6-7 week embryo looks like. I think the anti-choicers need to use a more accurate model instead of what they having been using. They need to start representing truth in realistic model form. They shouldn’t be afraid of the truth … or science.

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