When Is a 'Fetal Heartbeat' Detected? Doctors Say Not at Six Weeks Despite Texas Ban

On Wednesday, Texas introduced a law banning abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, when the so-called "fetal heartbeat" is detected. Senate Bill (SB) 8 states that any citizen can sue an abortion provider if they terminate a pregnancy after six weeks, as well as anyone who assists the woman in getting the abortion.

The justification for selecting six weeks as a limitation is that this is supposedly the point at which the first fetal heartbeat can be detected. Yet, the idea is contested by many doctors and organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

When we talk about a "fetal heartbeat" at six weeks what we are actually referring to is a flutter in the region where the heart will form, Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami, told Live Science.

Aftab said that this flutter can be detected by ultrasound, but is little more than the cluster of cells that will become the heart gaining the capacity to transmit electrical signals.

Despite this, the "fetal heartbeat" idea has now become part of laws designed to restrict abortion access in at least 9 states, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that researches and advocates for sexual and reproductive health.

The flutter is different from what we picture as a beating heart and can't be heard by doctors via a stethoscope. When a doctor listens to a patient's heartbeat with a stethoscope what they are detecting is the opening and closing of cardiac valves. Valves that don't yet exist at this stage of development.

Aftab is not the only doctor to challenge the six-week "fetal heartbeat" concept. In May, Dr. Michael Cackovic, maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, spoke out against the use of the term "first fetal heartbeat" by Republican lawmakers.

Cackovic, who practices in Ohio, told the Associated Press the laws are based on nothing other than the "amazing technological advances" that mean it is now possible to pick up the embryonic cardiac activity in its earliest stages.

Even the term "fetal" may be considered inaccurate when talking about pregnancy at six weeks. At this stage, "embryo" is the correct term, with "fetus" only becoming applicable after around eight weeks of development.

Yet the idea of a "fetal heartbeat" in relation to tighter abortion laws simply won't go away.

Janet Folger Porter, an Ohio anti-abortion activist, first coined the term "abortion stops a beating heart," which helped so-called "heartbeat bills" overcome constitutional concerns in states that support them. Discussing the 2019 Ohio "Heartbeat Protection Act" in an email to supporters she wrote "The slogan, 'Abortion stops a beating heart,' has long been an effective way to highlight the injustice and inhumanity of abortion."

Commenting on the adoption of this phrase by politicians, Canadian-American gynecologist Dr. Jennifer Gunter told Planned Parenthood in June: "The politicians know exactly what they are doing as [the term 'heartbeat'] is a way of making a 4 mm thickening next to a yolk sac seem like it is almost ready to walk."

The increasing prominence of abortion bills based on the idea of a six-week "fetal heartbeat" and the passing of SB 8 in Texas, could present the most significant threat to Roe v. Wade since its introduction 50 fifty years ago. This could result in the issue of abortion rights taking center stage during the 2022 mid-term elections.

texas abortion ban six weeks protest
Protesters hold up signs at a protest outside the Texas state capitol on May 29, 2021 in Austin, Texas. The Texas abortion bill SB 8 centers around the idea that a "fetal heartbeat" can be detected at six weeks of pregnancy. Sergio Flores/Getty Images