Throughout the United States, antichoice conservatives are introducing legislation that would make abortions illegal as soon as a “fetal heartbeat is detectable.” Antichoice proponents claim a heartbeat may be detectable as early as twenty-two days after conception, a point when many women would not even know they are pregnant—a point when the prenatal tissue is not even properly referred to as a “fetus” but is still categorized as an embryo. In short, heartbeat bills are just the latest attempt to outlaw abortion in the United States.
The heartbeat bills have no scientific merit or logic, but they do have emotional logic that tugs at the heartstrings of the scientifically ignorant. Paramedics and doctors check for a pulse or heartbeat to see if accident victims are still alive. If cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can resuscitate the heart, the patient may be said to be “brought back to life.” When loved ones die quietly and expectedly, a hospice-care worker, doctor, or nurse may check for a heartbeat, and when it stops we are told our loved one is gone. “Life has left the body.” Emotionally, life, love, and the heartbeat are enmeshed.
During lovemaking, one may feel one’s heart “pounding.” Afterward, one lover lies on the chest of the other listening to—feeling—the heartbeat. A mother checks on a sleeping sick child and places her hand on his or her warm chest and feels the heart beating. The antichoice conservatives’ tactic is to equate a heartbeat with love and human life. Thus, to remove an embryo with a detectable heartbeat is to end a human life. To remove an embryo with a detectable heartbeat is heartless and loveless. Abortion, they claim, is murder.
Equating a human life with a heartbeat is emotionally powerful but objectively false. A heartbeat does not equal a life. In humans and most vertebrate animals, there are three types of muscle: striated muscle (skeletal muscles, the biceps, triceps, and the like); smooth muscle (blood vessels); and cardiac muscle (the heart). Cardiac muscle has amazing characteristics. If individual cardiac cells are removed from a chicken embryo and placed in a Petri dish, they will pulsate at different rates, but shortly the individual cells will migrate together and all the cells will pulsate at the same rate as the initially fastest pulsating cell in the dish. This is individual cells beating together at the same rate, but this is not a heartbeat. It is not an unborn, un-hatched chicken; it is nothing more than a bunch of cells in a Petri dish.
If a canine heart is suspended in nutritious fluid and electrically stimulated—once, not continually—it will start to beat and continue to beat indefinitely. Its beat can be “detected” or observed by the naked eye. But it is not a “live” animal. It is not a puppy or dog. It is nothing more than an organ in fluid.
Recently, researchers have grown human cardiac cells is spinach leaves. Anyone can easily see these heart cells contracting on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iUrxGo9gZs). One day this science might benefit and even save human lives. But this is not a human life. It is live cells in spinach leaves in a laboratory.
During open-heart surgery, doctors routinely stop the heart while blood is temporarily pumped through a heart-lung machine. By stopping the heart, these doctors are not committing murder. Patients do sometimes die when the heart has stopped, but barring malpractice, the operating doctors are not charged with a crime. Millions of people are now kept alive with artificial electrical pacemakers that stimulate the heart to beat, but society does not consider those with pacemakers to be artificially alive or anything less than fully alive and capable humans.
A so-called heartbeat does not equal life. It is not even “beating,” as in when one beats a drum. The sounds we hear as a heartbeat—lub dub, lub dub—are actually the sounds of the tricuspid and mitral valves (lub) and pulmonic and aortic valves (dub) slapping shut. The term heartbeat is itself a misnomer.
Who knows what the antichoice conservative lobbyist and legislators mean by “heartbeat”? Cells pulsating? Valves closing? The ones proposing the heartbeat bills don’t even know what they are proposing. The claim that “a unique human life begins with a detectable heartbeat” is as absurd as the claim that “life begins at the instant of conception.” But since the heartbeat movement came about, in part at least, as a result of the untenable implications of claiming that life begins at conception, it is worth reviewing those implications.
Millions of women, including some antichoice conservative women, have had in vitro fertilization, where sperm is inserted into an egg in the laboratory and then some resulting embryos are inserted into the woman. Many more embryos are created than inserted. The rest are discarded. If life begins at the instant of conception, then each discarded embryo is a murder. Furthermore, many embryos are inserted, but typically none or only one, two, or three successfully implant and result in pregnancy. The rest dissolve, and the embryonic material is absorbed or expelled. If life begins at the instant of conception, then every inserted embryo that does not result in a successful pregnancy is also a loss of human life—murder or at least manslaughter.
Similarly, many natural pregnancies do not result in live birth. A conservative estimate is that 20 percent of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. Thus, if life begins at the instant of conception, then at least 20 percent of all women who have ever been pregnant, knowingly or not, are guilty of, if not murder, then at least negligent manslaughter. Many women who have an early miscarriage didn’t even know that they were pregnant. The products of the miscarriage are often mistaken for a product of menstruation. The actual instance of miscarriage is closer to 40 percent of all pregnancies. Are those who wish to rob women of their right to make decisions about their own bodies going to test each menstruation of every woman to ensure that no early miscarriage (“murder”) occurred? This is as absurd as the claim that a complete unique human life begins at the instant of conception or when a heartbeat is detectable.
It would be nice if science would reveal absolutes—heaven, hell; off, on; no life, life. Instead, science seems only to be revealing only complexity and blurry boundaries that mark the beginning of an independent, unique human life. But science has clearly revealed that an embryo or a fetus that makes internal movements that some may misleadingly call a “heartbeat” is clearly not an independent, unique human life. Instead, it is part of the woman’s body. Barring an unwanted spontaneous abortion, it is a woman’s choice what she wants to do with her body. A woman’s body is not the province of angry male religious zealots.