Texas fetal heartbeat bill expected to become law — but is it really a heartbeat at 6 weeks?

Texas Politics

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AUSTIN (KXAN/Texas Tribune) — As legislation that would ban abortions after as early as six weeks — before many women know they are pregnant — heads to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, hundreds of lawmakers and doctors are condemning the measure they say is purposely cruel.

Senate Bill 8, a Republican priority measure, bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a time frame. Even further, the bill would virtually allow any private citizen to sue abortion providers and those who help someone get an abortion after six weeks.

Those private citizens would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion, and would not need to reside in Texas.

The bill makes an exception allowing for abortions in the case of a medical emergency but not for rape or incest.

Opponents argue the bill’s broad legal language could open the door to harassing or frivolous lawsuits that could have a “chilling effect” on abortion providers and leave rape crisis counselors, nurses and clinic staff “subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers.”

“With their lack of power at the federal level, anti-choice lawmakers across the country are ramping up their attacks on reproductive freedom at the state level, and cruelty appears to be the point,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue.

Abbott has said he intends to sign the bill into law.

Is it a heartbeat?

While legislative analysis and the bill’s proponents say a heartbeat can be heard as early as six weeks, many medical experts argue there is no fully developed heart at that gestational age and that the sound referred to as a heartbeat is actually “electrically induced flickering” of fetal tissue, called a “pole.”

In a debate at the Texas House, Rep. Donna Howard, D – Austin, said:

“According to the science, the Doppler fetal monitor that has that sound that you gave us a while ago, is not actually the sound of a heartbeat, but an amplified version of signals. You’re not hearing a heartbeat, you’re hearing an amplified version of electrical signals. Did you know that?”

Rep. Donna Howard

Ob-gyn Dr. Jen Gunter says that the “pole” is thickening at the end of the yolk sac — the circular blob seen on ultrasounds — is merely cardiac activity of cells but not an independent heart with a heartbeat.

Gunter writes that while calling the “fetus” a “fetus” at this stage of pregnancy is technically correct, it’s merely “a 4 mm thickening next to a yolk sac.”

Gunter says that while calling this “blob” a fetus is technically okay, it looks nothing like the images pro-choice supporters — or as she calls them “anti-choice” — often point to of a tiny baby-shaped formation.

But Republican Rep. Shelby Slawson disagreed with Howard, arguing, “I’ve had a lot of ultrasounds and they never once referenced an electrical impulse. It was measured in beats per minute.”

“I’m just telling you what the science says. And I can’t say what you’ve been told. I’m telling you what the science is now,” Rep. Howard said.

Abortion rights advocates say it is among the most extreme restrictions nationwide.

Lawsuits

It’s similar to bills passed in other states that have been mostly stopped by the courts. But proponents of the Texas legislation believe it’s structured in a way that makes it tougher to block.

The bill would not be enforced by public officials. Proponents hope that will prevent abortion rights advocates from suing the state to prevent the law from taking effect, though some legal experts have doubts about the strategy.

The anti-abortion Texas Right to Life organization, which supported the bill, said it lets citizens hold abortion providers “accountable through private lawsuits,” which has not been tried in any other state.

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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