We All Hear a ‘Heartbeat’ — The New York Times Calls It Something Else

A recent New York Times article attempts to force scientific findings and manipulate the language to reach their own preferred conclusions.

A nurse prepares to use an ultrasound machine to monitor a baby in the womb of a mother at Birmingham Women's Hospital on Jan. 22, 2015, in Birmingham, England.
A nurse prepares to use an ultrasound machine to monitor a baby in the womb of a mother at Birmingham Women's Hospital on Jan. 22, 2015, in Birmingham, England. (photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

When is a heartbeat not a heartbeat? Apparently, when it’s detectable within an unborn child and poses a threat to the legality of most abortions.

This was the takeaway of a recent New York Times article that attempted to undermine the rationale of “heartbeat” laws, like the one recently passed in Texas, which bans most abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, typically after six-weeks of gestation. 

Entitled “Abortion Opponents Hear a ‘Heartbeat.’ Most Experts Hear Something Else,” the story put forward a number of claims that did more to reveal the linguistic manipulations abortion-access advocates are willing to engage in than anything objectively scientific.

The article’s central claim was that the cardiac activity detected at six weeks of pregnancy isn’t coming from a “heart,” but something else: “a primitive tube of cardiac cells that emit pulses and pump blood.”

“Many parents-to-be are moved by [these] sounds during an ultrasound scan,” author Roni Caryn Rabin went on to write. “But 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.”

Never mind that the so-called “tube of cardiac cells” is doing what the heart exists to do — pump blood — at any stage of development, and that doctors can measure the increase in “heart rate” (their word, not mine) from the fifth to sixth week of gestation. Never mind that, though perhaps not fully developed at six weeks, the distinctive organ in question is exactly the same one that any reasonable person identifies as the heart at any subsequent stage of development — something the author can’t help but note when she lets it slip that “the heart is one of the first organs to start developing” because of its importance in the ongoing development of the fetus as a whole, only to restate this developing heart as the “tube of cells that will become a heart.”  

(Word is out if The Times will next be writing a piece on how the human brain is not really a brain until 25 years of age, before which scientists don’t consider it “fully developed.”)

And never mind that the “cardiac tube” reaches the “fully formed” heart status the article insists upon typically only one week later, making the Times argument merely one of principle-less semantics. 

Why? Because a “still developing though already operational heart” doesn’t lend itself to the outcome the Times is seeking: undermining the credibility of fetal heartbeat laws. And thus, the utterly misleading and mangled language of “primitive tube of cardiac cells” is advanced.

“Abortion distortion is powerful,” tweeted noted Catholic bio-ethicist Charles Camosy, in response to the story. “Among other things, it causes otherwise science-minded people to write stuff like this. [Rabin] could’ve simply posted a four-chambered heart at seven weeks from an embryology textbook, but abortion distortion makes such facts inadmissible.”

The article plays fast and loose with many other relevant facts. For instance, Rabin notes that the detection of a fetal heartbeat does not ensure that “a live birth is on the way,” asserting that this undermines the logic of the Texas law. But the Fetal Heartbeat Act doesn’t make such sweeping guarantees. The law simply says that the “fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth” — a basic fact supported by scientific study. And since the state of Texas has a compelling interest “from the outset of a woman’s pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the unborn child,” the detection of a fetal heartbeat is compelling grounds for limiting abortion access.

The NYT article also makes the strange claim that “the sound expectant mothers hear during a[n ultrasound] scan is created by the machine itself, which translates the waves of electrical activity into something audible” — as if the sound produced by the machine is utterly disconnected from the fetal heart’s pumping blood — a rhythmic activity commonly referred to as a “heartbeat,” regardless of whether or not it produces a sound we can hear.

“This objection is quite odd,” tweeted Catholic speaker and author Leah Libresco. “Yes, the Doppler heartbeat is the result of using high-pitched sound waves to track blood flow and produce a sound you can hear. [But] by the same logic, an ultrasound picture isn’t ‘real’ because it translates sound waves into a visual representation.”

The Times attempted to lay part of the blame for the “misleading” practice of referring to the “cardiac tube’s” activity as a “heartbeat” on doctors who sacrifice science for the sake of playing into expectant parents’ excitement about their developing unborn son or daughter. 

“The word has even crept into the medical literature,” warns Rabin, completely misrepresenting the fact that it is the politically-motivated push to redefine “fetal heartbeat” as “fetal electric activity” that is intruding upon already established medical language.

Jewish journalist Noah Baum made this point when he tweeted, “For a fun time, Google ‘cardiac activity’ and see what comes up.”

The first hit? A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, that concludes that “cardiac activity is present in normal embryos before it can be detected on ultrasound.”

Catholic commentators were quick to point out that absurdity of the linguistic gymnastics on display, and the clear motivation behind them.

“The [New York Times] is really spinning full speed here,” tweeted Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York Catholic Conference. Poust first brought the story to the attention of “Catholic Twitter,” retweeting it with the quip: “Such a special moment for expectant parents the first time the doctor says, ‘Let’s see if we can hear the electrical cardiac activity.”

“Everyone says ‘heartbeat’ unless they think you might want the pulse to stop,” said Libresco. “Just like everyone says ‘baby’ unless they think you don’t want to/won’t get to meet the baby.”

Libresco went further, pointing out the strange logic of The Times and the abortion-access sources they interviewed quibbling over when, in fact, we can call a fetal heartbeat a heartbeat.

“There’s the added wrinkle that there’s obviously a point before birth where pro-choice folks agree it’s a heart and a heartbeat,” she said. “But they don’t think that indicates abortion is wrong at that point, so there’s little reason to fight so hard to deny a heartbeat earlier.”

Camosy responded, getting at the heart of the matter: “Right, but I take their attempt to control abortion narratives to be far more important than having a consistent point of view. The narrative created by drawing attention to the actual biology of a prenatal child, especially so early on in her life, demands a counter-narrative.”

In other words, abortion-access advocates don’t really care when we can say that an unborn child has a “heartbeat” with scientific accuracy. What they care about is keeping abortion available at all costs and undermining any dissent, willing to bend any and everything — including established scientific language and facts — toward that end.

So yes, “follow the science” indeed. But keep in mind that in the fight for prenatal justice — as well as in a whole host of other contexts where science and social issues intersect — powerful forces are attempting to force scientific findings and the language we use to describe them to reach their own preferred and predetermined conclusions.