“Once a fetal heartbeat could be detected, typically around the sixth week of pregnancy … ”
When I read this phrase in the New Yorker, referring to Texas’s first abortion ban, I shot off a letter to the editor. “This is misleading,” I wrote. “There is no heartbeat at six weeks because the fetus does not yet have a heart. As San Francisco OB-GYN Dr. Jennifer Kerns told NPR: ‘What we’re really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity. In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart.’” I noted that “a six-week fetus is about the size and shape of a baked bean.”
If the vaunted New Yorker copy desk could let this bit of anti-abortion bunk stand without comment, what was going on? I combed the media. Not just the National Review—which calls corrections like Dr. Kerns’s “mendacity”— or the Catholic press but also mainstream local and national news outlets including CNN, The Associated Press, Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, and PBS were parroting the same descriptor of the inaccurately — and of course strategically — named “fetal heartbeat” laws being debated or enacted in states from Idaho to Iowa, Georgia to New Hampshire.
The chorus resounded from websites, television, and radio from coast to coast: South Carolina was debating a law that “bans most abortions after early cardiac activity can be detected in a fetus or embryo, which can commonly be detected as early as six weeks into pregnancy”; in Georgia, a “law banning abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically around six weeks”; Nebraska’s legislature made an “unconventional move … after conservatives failed to advance a bill that would have banned abortion once cardiac activity can be detected — generally around six weeks of pregnancy.”
A number of the reports got it half right, adding that when the so-called heartbeat is first detected, many women do not even know they are pregnant.
Maybe it’s correction fatigue, brought on by Donald Trump’s 35,500-plus lies and the subsequent atrophy of truth in politics and media. In any case, there are signs of increasing credulity — or laziness. In May 2021, the AP published an in-depth piece headlined “‘Fetal heartbeat’ in abortion laws taps emotion, not science,” by staff reporters Julie Carr Smyth and Kimberlee Kruesi. A year later — the week the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson came down, upholding Mississippi’s 15-week ban and nullifying the constitutional right to abortion — Smyth was tasked with penning a Q&A explainer of current heartbeat laws.
Like the previous article, this one put “fetal heartbeat” between quotes every time. Unlike the first, however, the explainer toggled between truth and fiction. In the second paragraph, Smyth hit the “fetal heartbeat” shortcut key: “Such laws, often referred to as ‘fetal heartbeat bills,’ ban abortions once cardiac activity is detected, which can happen around six weeks into pregnancy.” This deception by omission — there is no cardiac activity without a heart — is repeated at paragraph 8. At paragraph 12 comes the caveat that the widely used legislative language of unborn humans and beating hearts “does not easily translate to medical science” — there’s a link to the previous year’s piece — “because at the point where advanced technology can detect that first visual flutter … the embryo isn’t yet a fetus, and it doesn’t have a heart.” Paragraphs 16 and 22 refer again to “cardiac activity.”
But the other side also fiddles with the facts, notes Smyth. Abortion rights proponents often call these laws six-week abortion bans. “That, too, is misleading,” she writes, because the texts “make no mention of a particular gestational age after which abortion is illegal.” Ecce balance.
Always better at propaganda than its opponents and, also unlike its opponents, instinctively sentimental, the anti-abortion movement was quick to appropriate the heart as both the metaphor of love and compassion and the critical sign of life itself.
Even before Roe, the opponents of abortion had conflated science and religious morality through language, transforming a blob of disorganized embryonic cells into an “unborn child.” “To take the life of an unborn child, regardless of the number of days it has been forming, is murder,” read a 1967 pamphlet called “Abortion: Yes or No?” But it was in 1983, a decade after Roe, with virtually no anti-abortion victories to show — 88 of 96 abortion bills introduced in state legislatures and Congress were defeated, and public opinion stuck heavily in support of abortion rights — that a fortunate stroke of political instinct matured into strategy.
The anti-abortion movement was quick to appropriate the heart as both the metaphor of love and compassion and the critical sign of life itself.
That year, a banner headline in the National Right to Life News proclaimed: “Science: The Pro-Life Movement’s Emerging Ally.” The next year came “The Silent Scream,” a 28-minute film that the Right to Life Committee called the “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of the pro-life movement,” and rightfully so: It is probably the most influential piece of propaganda in the history of the abortion debates. Narrated by the late abortion doctor turned anti-abortion spokesperson Bernard Nathanson, the film presents the sonographic record of a 12-week vacuum aspiration abortion as visible testimony to the alleged pain and distress of the “little person” at the moment of its destruction.
New technologies “have convinced us that beyond question, the unborn child is simply … another member of the human community,” intones Nathanson, “indistinguishable in every way from any of us.” Deftly moving between technical explanations of sonography and embryology, and emotionally charged descriptions of abortion and the alleged suffering of the preborn “child,” “The Silent Scream” epitomizes the movement’s dominant rhetorical strategy going forward: serving up scientific bullshit generously sweetened with sap.
In 1992, the strategy was refined: The heart became the synecdoche for the body and soul of the unborn. Right to Life launched a media campaign with the tagline “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.” The accompanying graphic, reproduced on flyers and political buttons, was an EKG zigzag flatlining across a red valentine-shaped heart.
Then in 2011, veteran antiabortion and anti-LGBTQ+ activist Janet Folger Porter transformed rhetoric into legislation. The former legislative director of Ohio Right to Life and founder of Faith2Action (“formed to WIN the cultural war for life, liberty, and the family”) conceived and lobbied indefatigably for the first state “fetal heartbeat” law, which Ohio enacted in 2012. Porter fueled the campaign with heart-shaped balloons, teddy bears, and red roses. Its slogan fused science and sentiment: “If a heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected.”
The idea spread quickly. National Right to Life released a one-minute video. Its images are intrauterine closeups; its opening soundtrack is a rumble resembling the background noise of a Weather Channel hurricane report, with a woman’s voice above it: “You are listening to the sound of the heartbeat of a living unborn baby.” Within a decade, more than a dozen states had adopted the language of Folger’s bill almost identically.
There are exceptions to the press’s rote adoption of right-to-life language, New York Times’ coverage among them. For its part, the reproductive justice movement is finally upping its rhetorical game, renaming the heartbeat legislation “forced pregnancy” or “forced motherhood” laws. But the forced motherhood movement is constantly, often quietly, escalating the discursive battle. The “unborn baby” has now been promoted in legislative texts to the “unborn human individual.” If babies in utero are at least dependent on their mothers for protection and sustenance, a “human individual” can be construed as a person separate from and equally deserving of rights as its mother.
Anti-abortion propaganda is making its way into the legal record. It was a triumph for the antis when Justice Samuel Alito, in the Dobbs opinion, repeated soundly disproven claims as “legitimate interests” justifying the revocation of the constitutional right: that abortion is unhealthy and unsafe (presumably more so than pregnancy, which it isn’t); that it is a “particularly gruesome or barbaric medical procedure” (which it isn’t); and, the fantasy promulgated by “The Silent Scream,” that abortion causes fetuses pain.
In ruling for the plaintiffs and against the Food and Drug Administration in its approval of mifepristone, Texas federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk further enshrined antiabortion rhetoric in legal precedent by calling a pharmaceutically induced pregnancy termination a “chemical” abortion. The antis’ derogative sounds more painful and harmful, and creepier, than the mainstream usage, “medication” abortion.
Will the media fall in line? On the website of Wyoming Public Radio in March, a news item began this way: “Wyoming recently became the first state to explicitly ban the use of pills for abortion. The new law comes as chemical abortion is in the national spotlight due to a legal battle over a specific medication in Texas.” Throughout the text, “chemical abortion” is used interchangeably with “medication abortion,” without qualification or quotation marks.