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Iowa Passes 6-Week Abortion Ban Based on “Fetal Heartbeat” Falsehood

The Iowa Legislature met in special session yesterday and passed a bill banning abortion after six weeks of gestation. Governor Kim Reynolds, who convened the special session after Iowa courts nixed a previous six-week ban, will sign the bill Friday, immediately replacing Iowa’s current law allowing abortions up to 20 weeks.

Like much Republican legislation, Iowa’s new abortion ban is based on fiction:

The “fetal heartbeat” law introduced by Republicans would ban nearly all abortions after cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo. That occurs at about six weeks of gestation — measured as six weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period began.

…Medical professionals say it’s misleading to call those early electric pulses a “fetal heartbeat,” as the embryo is not yet a fetus, and the cells that will become a heart do not yet move blood [Stephen Gruber-Miller, Katie Akin, and Galen Bacharier, “Iowa Lawmakers Pass 6-Week ‘Fetal heartbeat’ Abortion Ban; Reynolds to Sign Bill Friday,” Des Moines Register, 2023.07.11].

Adam Rogers expanded on the science Republicans ignore in favor of emotion and misogyny in this 2019 Wired explanation:

First, you have to note the use of the phrase “unborn human individual;” this part of the debate over abortion depends on whether you think a 3- to 4-millimeter-long, partially organized blob of cells is a human individual or not. It also depends on whether you think the government or the person in whom those cells reside gets to make that determination.

…if you’re thinking about this as something that looks roughly like a person with something that looks roughly like a chest, inside which something that looks roughly like a valentine is going pitter-pat (or lubdub-lubdub), you’re picturing the wrong thing. As the ob-gyn Jen Gunter wrote three years ago, this is, more technically, “fetal pole cardiac activity.” It’s a cluster of pulsing cells. “In the mouse embryo, for example, there is a definite cardiac rhythm in the tiny, little, immature heart at 8.5 days of development, but it is certainly not enough to support viability,” says Janet Rossant, senior scientist and chief of research emeritus at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “It is just helping to encourage the development of an organized vasculature and circulatory system—a prerequisite for future viability but not sufficient alone.”

That’s the other wobbly term of art here: “viability.” In common parlance, people sometimes use that word to describe a baby far enough along in gestation to survive outside a woman’s womb. In humans, that takes about 24 weeks, give or take (every pregnancy is different, and so are the skill sets of every hospital and every neonatal intensive care unit). But that’s not what clinicians mean. “It means a pregnancy that, at that point in time, looks like it’s normal to continue,” [UC San Francisco ob-gyn Jennifer] Kerns says.

…“Using the word heartbeat here is an intentional obfuscation,” Kerns says. “Hearing the word heartbeat plays upon people’s emotions … when in fact what it does is effectively ban abortions for many people, because many people don’t even know they’re pregnant at six weeks.”

…This kind of slippery language and shoddy science has consequences. Even if it wasn’t an attempt to put a veneer of scientific finality over a difficult ethical question, it’d still open up the possibility of serious health risks to pregnant women. Some of the legislation under consideration doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of a miscarriage after detection of fetal cardiac activity, meaning women who do miscarry could be subject to prosecution—which could deter them from seeking necessary prenatal medical care. “We absolutely know that when you ban abortion, maternal mortality increases,” Kerns says. “But in addition, it marginalizes poor women and women of color, who are often the ones who can’t then access abortion across state lines, who can’t take days off of work, organize child care, and have the finances. It just exacerbates what’s already an inequitable system” [Adam Rogers, “‘Heartbeat’ Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong,” Wired, 2019.05.14].

“Fetal heartbeat” was scientific bunkum when Kristi Noem used it as the basis for her failed attempt to copy Texas’s abortion ban in South Dakota’s 2022 Legislative Session (back in the good old days when women had a constitutional right to abortion and equal autonomy and dignity under the law). The trick term is still bunkum in Kim Reynolds’ increasingly authoritarian and anti-woman Iowa.


  1. larry kurtz 2023-07-12 07:57

    7. Republican politicians drive their anti-woman crusade to raise campaign dollars so ending reproductive rights in red states is Balkanizing women’s health care.

    10. There is no foetal heartbeat until late in a pregnancy. What an ultrasound “hears” at six weeks are cells beginning to built a cardiac system.

    11. States that ban women from going out of state for their procedures or medications are violating the Commerce Clause enumerated in the United States Constitution.

  2. John 2023-07-12 08:09

    Good for Iowa (sarcasm). Iowa will rapidly accelerate its depopulation as women under the age of 45 flee. Iowa colleges will rapidly lose its female student body. Iowa medical schools will lose their OBGYNs and the state will lose its capacity to recruit doctors. Corporations will also flee and/or reduce investment in the backwater state.
    Others stated before that the right wingnuts will rue the day they appointed a pack of immoral zealots to the courts for it will change US politics for the next 50 years.

  3. P. Aitch 2023-07-12 10:17

    Well said, John. States rights are highly beneficial to we Blue states and devastating to Red states.
    “It Is the Way!”

  4. bearcreekbat 2023-07-12 10:49

    Bunkum indeed. SD law makes Iowa look like a bright light light of advanced scientific thought, especially considering this quote fromn Cory’s story:

    . . . . this part of the debate over abortion depends on whether you think a 3- to 4-millimeter-long, partially organized blob of cells is a human individual or not. It also depends on whether you think the government or the person in whom those cells reside gets to make that determination.

    While both Iowa and SD have concluded “the government [rather than] the person in whom those cells reside gets to make that determination,” SD goes even further than Iowa by legislatively creating a magical “unborn child” out of a mere fertilized egg much smaller and less developed than a “3- to 4-millimeter-long, partially organized blob of cells.” See:

    SDCL 22-1-2 (50A) “Unborn child,” an individual organism of the species homo sapiens from fertilization until live birth;

    And as previously reported the term “unborn child” is a key phrase in a variety of SD criminal statutes, including the SD homicide and 1st degree murder statutes at SDCL 22-16-1 and SDCL 22-16-4(1). While recently enacted legisilation appears to give a pregnant woman immunity from being prosecuted from committing a state defined murder of an “unborn child” by unlawfully causing the ejection of a “fertilized egg” from her own body and thereby violating the homicide statutes, anyone that aids, abets, or advises her in ejecting that fertilized egg from her body has not been granted that immunity and would be subject to a criminal homicide prosecution, with the death penalty on the table if convicted on violating SDCL 22-16-4(1).

    Compared to SD law Iowa’s new law is a highly progressive law that would have SD’s legislators tearing their hair out by their inability to threaten death to anyone that helps a woman mess with a fertilized egg. Who would have thought Iowa to be such a liberal state?

  5. e platypus onion 2023-07-12 12:01

    So what happens if everyone the pregnant lady knows all claim to have advised her to abort? Will South Duhkota have to build more prisons?

  6. e platypus onion 2023-07-12 12:15

    iowa’s bill does not provide punishment for women who have abortions and doctors penalties have yet to be determined by medical board. Load of bull puckey, es[ecially the 6 week alleged heartbeat. Vote all magats out of office.

  7. P. Aitch 2023-07-12 12:44

    Here’s some “fresh, raw meat” for social warrior SD legislators.
    You’ll not be able to successfully charge anyone with the murder of a fetus without the fetal remains as evidence.
    Does your state require a doctor to incriminate himself/herself/themself by signing a death certificate for an entity that never had life to begin with?

  8. P. Aitch 2023-07-12 12:49

    PS – Are SD morticians legally allowed to cremate fetal remains 24 weeks of gestation or less?

  9. Eve Fisher 2023-07-12 13:06

    Meanwhile, as someone has pointed out before, what doctors go by in end of life decisions is brain activity. Brain dead, but with a heartbeat? The person is dead, and without life support the body won’t stay alive for longer than a day or two. With life support, hard to say, but most people (like me and my husband) don’t want that to happen and sign a living will about it.
    Now, in a fetus, electrical activity in the brain doesn’t get going until the 8th week, and isn’t what could be fully functional until around the 28th week.
    Meanwhile, 1 in every 4,600 babies is born with anencephaly, i.e., in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. Those babies, if born, die very quickly and unpleasantly. Which is why it was horrible that a woman carrying a baby that had no skull was denied an abortion in Louisiana, and had to go 1400 miles to get one.
    But yes, pro-life. Absolutely pro-life.

  10. bearcreekbat 2023-07-12 13:27

    P., there is no requirement that the prosecution produce any evidence of a dead body in a homicide prosecution. In the typical case it would be more difficult to obtain a conviction without a body, and in the case of an aborted fertilized egg it would seem almost impossible without testimony from the pregnant woman, or someone that witnessed her positive pregnancy test. But that doesn’;t mean a zealous prosecutor cannot go for it.

    Despite the difficuly, the SD legislature has given prosecutors the go ahead to seek such a conviction and get their names in the paper for political advancement. I recall former S.D. U.S. District Judge Richard Battey advanced his career by succeeding in a prosecution no other prosecutor thought feasible. He charged a mere shoplifter with burglary, a much more serious felony than mere larcency, and obtained a conviction that was apparently upheld by the SD Supreme Court based on careless statutory language! And a few years back another prosecutor in Pennington County threated theatres with prosectuion for a so-called common law crime of “blasphemy” because the theatre was showing “Life of Brian.” That prosecutor only threatened prosecution, but didn’t follow through since crimes defined by common law crimes were considered unconstitutional (I wonder if today’s SCOTUS conservative supermajority would change that longstanding precedent to continue the advance of right wing control over people’s lives and private decisions). I don’t see why trying to prosecute someone for criminal homicide of a fertilized egg would be any different, without a body or with the the actual physical remains in a baby food jar, despite the difficulty of obtaining a conviction. Interestingly the linked article reports: while “the conviction rate in standard murder trials is only 70%, those where the victim’s body has not been recovered have a conviction rate of 86%.”

  11. P. Aitch 2023-07-12 14:32

    I’d postulate that the rate is higher because a District Attorney wouldn’t even attempt such a trial unless there was some overwhelming evidence. An airtight case. We’d need to see the number of total cases for each type of trial to get a better understanding. Maybe there are a hundred murder cases with a corpse per every murder trial without a corpse. That would explain the percentage difference.

  12. bearcreekbat 2023-07-12 14:48

    P. the linked article supports your theory in spades. Prosecutors reportedly only go after the strongest cases. How that might work in an unlawful abortion situation is an open question.

    Nevertheless, imagine, for example the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. Years after that decision Jane Roe decided she had made a mistake and joined the Right to Life movement. In a similar hypothetical situation in SD a zealous prosecutor could ask SD’s version of that Jane Roe to disclose who helped her get the Mifepristone and Misoprostol and then file charges of 1st degree murder against anyone named by Jane Roe, relying on Roe’s testimony that she had been pregnant and that the pill caused amiscarriage(i.e. abortion) to obtain a conviction. Such testimony would support a conviction without the necesity of the fertilized egg remains ever being found.

  13. P. Aitch 2023-07-12 15:53

    News Not Seen from SD Sources:
    The majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to an AP-NORC poll released Wednesday.

    Why it matters: A year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Americans’ overall support for access to the procedure remains strong — even as red states continue to pass strict bans.

    By the numbers: The poll, conducted in late June, found that 64% of U.S. adults believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

    Yes, but: Americans are divided when it comes to how far into pregnancy abortion should be allowed.

    73% of those surveyed said abortion should be allowed in the first six weeks of pregnancy, including 58% of people living in states with the strictest bans.

    But overall support drops to 51% when it comes to allowing abortion in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, and falls to 27% for 24 weeks.
    There are also stark partisan divides, with Democrats’ support for abortion far outweighing that of Republicans.

    More News: Biden administration conquers inflation. i.e. If Joe Steady caused it, then Joe Steady damn well cured it!

  14. e platypus onion 2023-07-12 17:45

    Mifepristone and Misoprostol do these drugs actually cause a miscarriage or do they prevent the fertilized egg ferom implanting in uterus? Someone please enlighten the onion.

  15. bearcreekbat 2023-07-12 19:38

    Onion, good question best answered by a medical expert. In SD, however, it would not matter since at the moment of fertilization the egg is magically transformed by statute into an “unborn child,” at which point the SD criminal statutes kick in. The intentional and premeditated act of preventing the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus falls squarely within the scope of SD’s current 1st degree murder statute, SDCL 22-16-4(1), and anyone aiding, abetting or advising (i.e. helping) a pregnant woman obtain and/or ingest these drugs faces up to the statutory death sentence.

    But wait, there may still be a legal defense. After it is the woman that ingests the pills, so it would seem that technically she is the “principal” is committing the criminal act of unlawfully terminating the life of her fertilized egg (i.e. statutory unborn child). the SD aiding and abeting statute, SDCL 22-3-3, reads:

    Any person who, with the intent to promote or facilitate the commission of a crime, aids, abets, or advises another person in planning or committing the crime, is legally accountable, as a principal to the crime.

    And the newly enacted statute, SDCL 22-17-5.2 reads:

    A female who undergoes an unlawful abortion, as set forth in § 22-17-5.1, may not be held criminally liable for the abortion.

    If the pregnant woman, namely the “principal,” “may not be held criminally liable for the abortion” and if the person that aids, abets or advises that woman “is legally accountable, as a principal to the crime” then perhaps the person that aids, abets or advises that woman likewise “may not be held crimninally liable for the abortion.” If so, it may be that SD legislators have actually just once again legalized all abortions!!

  16. Ryan 2023-07-13 08:41

    The solution is simple – oral only until we go extinct. Could be worse fates, really.

  17. P. Aitch 2023-07-13 09:44

    This Just In … FDA approves birth control without a doctor’s prescription. Millions of unwanted teen pregnancies just became avoided. YAY!!

  18. Mike Zitterich 2023-07-14 19:07

    I told you all a month ago that South Dakota law does NOT incriminate women for having abortion, and you all laughed. It appears you are all beginning to understand I am correct.

  19. Ryan 2023-07-15 19:21

    Mike z says 45 idiotic and incorrect things and one thing turns out correct and he throws himself a party haha

  20. bearcreekbat 2023-07-16 02:15

    If I am not mistaken, the new statute, SDCL 22-17-5.2, which now states any female that undergoes an unlawful abortion
    is immune from criminal prosecution did not go into effect until July 1, which means that any claims made prior to July 1 that South Dakota law did not incriminate women for having abortion would have been incorrect. Indeed, had the law not incriminated women before July 1st, enacting SDCL 22-17-5.2 would not have been necessary.

  21. e platypus onion 2023-07-16 08:02

    magats have used eminent domain to take possession of women’s baby making apparatus without any compensation at all. Unconstitutional?

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