Recent comments made by Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams regarding fetal heartbeats were a hot topic among GOP lawmakers on Thursday during a House Oversight Committee hearing examining abortion restrictions across the country.
Abrams has faced heavy criticism from the right following a comment she made last week during a panel discussion in Atlanta.
“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” she said. “It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have a right to take control of a woman’s body away from her.”
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) raised Abrams’ remarks during Thursday’s hearing and, like two other GOP colleagues, pressed the expert witnesses to respond to the claims.
“Within the first four weeks of pregnancy, the baby develops a heartbeat, despite, by the way, claims of my home state’s gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, this is not merely a manufactured sound,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).
Abrams’s comments undercut the rationale for so-called “fetal heartbeat” bills popular among some on the right, which ban abortions after about six weeks, although some people may not even know they are pregnant at that stage.
An appeals court in July allowed Georgia’s fetal heartbeat bill to go into effect immediately, part of myriad actions in GOP-led states following the Supreme Court’s decision in May to overturn Roe v. Wade and the federal right to an abortion.
Abrams’s comments reflect the position of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which says on its website: “It is clinically inaccurate to use the word ‘heartbeat’ to describe the sound that can be heard on ultrasound in very early pregnancy”
It adds that the chambers of the heart don’t develop until roughly 17-20 weeks of gestation, meaning “What pregnant people may hear is the ultrasound machine translating electronic impulses that signify fetal cardiac activity into the sound that we recognize as a heartbeat.”
Dr. Nisha Verma, an OBGYN who works for the ACOG, did not respond directly when asked Thursday if heartbeats heard at six weeks of pregnancy were a “manufactured sound.”
But she previously told NPR that “The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.”
However, there is not a consensus within the medical community on the question. Johns Hopkins Medicine, for example, says a fetal heart begins beating within four weeks of pregnancy.
Dr. Monique Wubbenhorst, a witness invited to Thursday’s hearing by Republicans, said the cardiac activity present at six weeks is not just “a random contraction of cells.”
“There’s coordinated movement that’s well documented,” she said. “The fetal heart is beating early in pregnancy and the other point that I think is important to make is that we rely on assessments of the fetal heart rate, presence or absence of the fetal heartbeat in order to assess fetal health.”
Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) submitted for the record a study titled “Role of ultrasound in the evaluation of first trimester pregnancies in the acute setting.”
“It finds that in normal fetal development, a heartbeat is expected at or around six weeks,” he said.
Hice argued that what to call the cardiac activity detected by ultrasound didn’t change what it represents.
“Referring to an unborn baby’s heartbeat as mere cardiac activity does not change the fact it’s another attempt to simply deny what we are talking about, and that is a human life,” he said.
Abrams, like many Democrats, has made abortion a central theme of her campaign.
During an appearance on ABC’s “The View” earlier this month, the candidate said she believes abortion should be allowed until the time of birth if a pregnant person’s health or life is in danger.
However, she grew up opposing abortion as the daughter of two United Methodist pastors.
“I evolved on this issue because I learned more. And what I understand is that abortion is not a political decision. It is a medical choice,” she said in July, according to NPR.