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.