The Politics of Heartbeats

One of the most upsetting things about this last election season was not the ascendence of Mr. Donald J. Trump to the presidency, but the utter destruction that his and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns had on the news. If there was a question about where one stood prior to the 2016 primaries, it was undebatable by August. As such over the past nine months I have had to completely reassess where I get and read the news. Fake news abound on both sides and heavily biased, I suppose what we call spin, was clear in the interpretation of the events. Of all the articles and publications, I was most surprised by the January 24th article in The Atlantic, “The Politics of Ultrasound.” Its always a good sign when the article begins with an editors note stating “This article has been significantly revised since original publication. Please see correction note below.”

The author, Moria Weigel, states that she sets out to answer the two questions: what is a fetal heartbeat and why does it matter? These are odd questions given that the answers should be straight forward. What is a fetal heartbeat? I presume the same thing as a heartbeat sans modifier with the understanding that the heart is developing. So the only difference would be how whether the heart is completely developed or not. Why does it matter? It would just be one more evidence that “the destruction of a fetus” is the ending of a human life. Which would presumably strike a blow against so-called abortion rights.

It turns out that Weigel’s article has little to do with answering those two questions. Instead she, as the title of the article informs us, wants to lament “how effectively politicians have used visual technology to redefine what counts as ‘life.'” Commenting on the number of states that either require or require doctors to offer ultrasounds to mothers seeking abortions, Weigel writes, “These measures are based on two assumptions: First, that an ultrasound image has an obvious meaning. Second, that any pregnant woman who sees an ultrasound will recognize this meaning. Science does not bear either assumption out.” Is that not an odd statement though? What does she mean ‘science does not bear this out.’ Science has no ability to determine meaning only mechanism, so we should not expect science to be able to quantify and verify that there is some meaning in ultrasounds. However, thanks to Polifact, a widely sited website during the campaign which assessed the truth-statements of both candidates, we can see that the University of California at San Francisco did a study of women who received ultrasounds and found that their research:

offer support for anti-abortion claims that ultrasound viewing can dissuade women from abortion, as well as support for abortion rights claims that viewing an ultrasound can cause emotional difficulty for a woman planning to abort.

— Women’s Perspectives on Ultrasound Viewing in the Abortion Care Context by Katrina Kimport, PhD

Furthermore, a study done at the University of British Columbia found that many women receive ultrasounds at an abortion clinic (though Politifact says they remained unswayed in their opinion that is actually not in the study) nearly every woman who was already a parent turned down the offered ultrasound. One might draw the conclusion that if they had an ultrasound with their previous child it might cause them to lose heart in their decision, as the UCSF study showed that women connect the ultrasound to their child.

While Politifact assessment declared the statement “that more than 90% of women who receive ultrasounds change their mind about abortion” to be false, that is clearly not the whole story. What is more surprising is that ‘science’ seems to be jury out rather than unable to bear out Weigel’s two assumptions. 

While science may be undecided on such an issue, the populace of one constituency seems to be decidedly in favor of the meaning of fetal heartbeats. That of, I can’t believe I am going to write this, Instagram. It was announced all over the news that Beyoncé Knowles’ February 1st Instagram post captioned “I have three hearts” revealing that she is pregnant with twins shattered records to become the most liked post in Instagram‘s history. I wonder if Weigel would like to raise an objection to Beyoncé fans about what is a fetal heartbeat and why it is important.

Thanks for reading,