Would a “heartbeat” by any other name still be a heartbeat? The New York Times doesn’t think so. On Valentine’s Day, the newspaper published a straight news article decrying the use of the word “heartbeat” to describe fetal cardiac activity (otherwise known as, well, a heartbeat).
The article focuses on abortion-restricting “heartbeat bills” such as Texas’ legislation passed last year, which rely on “emotional” appeals to a baby’s beating heart. Parents-to-be may be able to hear a heartbeat at six weeks’ gestation, but, New York Times health writer Roni Caryn Rabin argues, “what the law defines as the sound of a heartbeat is not considered by medical experts to be coming from a developed heart, which forms later in pregnancy.”
“The heart is one of the first organs to start developing, because the embryo’s growth and survival depend on the circulation of blood carrying oxygen and nutrients,” she writes. “The electric activity begins at around six weeks in a tube of cells that will become a heart, after multiple gyrations.”
Rabin argues that the baby doesn’t really have a heart until a few weeks later, when “four chambers and valves will form.” She adds, “a heartbeat’s familiar ‘lub-dub, lub-dub’ sound is created by the closing of the heart’s valves, which do not exist in the six-week-old cardiac tube.”
To her credit, Rabin lets a pro-life advocate note how absurd this parsing of language sounds. “It is a heart tube, but it is still a heart,” Dr. Christina Francis, chair of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said. “The shape is different, but that doesn’t change the essence of what it is.”
Rabin also notes that though the presence of an unborn baby’s heartbeat may have more emotional cachet, most pro-life advocates still “argue that life begins at conception.”
Nonetheless, the author concludes that the idea of a heartbeat at six weeks is nonsense: “The consensus among most medical experts is that the electrical activity picked up on an ultrasound at six weeks is not the sound of a heart beating and does not guarantee a live birth. The sound expectant mothers hear during a scan is created by the machine itself, which translates the waves of electrical activity into something audible.”
Regardless of whether a six-week-old fetus’ heartbeat comes from a developed heart or that unborn baby has a statistically high chance of continuing to live does not change the existence and value of the unique person’s life, and therefore shouldn’t matter to pro-lifers. But this kind of euphemistic language is common among, and valuable to, the pro-abortion movement (always “fetus,” never “baby”; “cardiac activity,” not “heartbeat”) as a way to subtly dehumanize the life in the womb.
Rabin even criticizes doctors for speaking about the unborn too humanely. “Doctors are partly to blame for the confusion,” she writes. “Many physicians whose patients are excited about a desired pregnancy will use the word ‘heartbeat’ to describe the cardiac activity heard on an early ultrasound.”
Pro-life advocates should take note of this hoop-jumping and be sure to use clear, specific language. Whether or not it comes from a fully developed organ, a heartbeat is still a heartbeat, and a new human life still has as much value as a more developed one.