Real-talking OB/GYN Jennifer Gunter published a fantastic piece in the Huffington Post on Monday, arguing that the press has been mischaracterizing the hyper-restrictive abortion ban passed by the Ohio legislature last week. Proponents have dubbed the legislation a “heartbeat bill,” since it would prohibit abortions performed after cardiac activity can first be detected in an embryo, around six weeks’ gestation. The bill will become law if Governor John Kasich doesn’t veto it this week.
Gunter contends that press accounts of the bill have bought into a biased “heartbeat” narrative that makes an embryo at six weeks’ gestation seem more developed than it actually is. When anti-abortion politicians use the word heartbeat, what they actually mean is “fetal pole cardiac activity,” Gunter writes.
Early in a pregnancy, the embryo’s yolk sac (an external membrane that allows blood to form and will eventually be subsumed into the fetus’s body) thickens at one end. This thickening, about 4 millimeters wide, is called a fetal pole, and it can be detected as early as six weeks after a pregnant woman’s last period through a vaginal ultrasound. When it’s detected, there is usually some motion on the ultrasound. That’s considered early cardiac activity.
“The politicians know exactly what they are doing” by calling this a “heartbeat,” Gunter writes. It’s “a way of making a 4 mm thickening next to a yolk sac seem like it is almost ready to walk.” (Here’s a visualization of what an embryo actually looks like at six weeks. Here’s the anti-choice version, which looks like a 4-month-old infant.) Politicians and activists pushing an anti-abortion agenda will always make up their own terminology to support legislation about medical procedures they know very little about. That’s how the misleading, inaccurate terms “partial-birth abortion” and “baby parts” came into public use. “If politicians want to play doctor they should be using medical terms,” Gunter argues in her piece. “If they refuse to use the correct terminology, the press should correct them.”
Gunter is right: Voters evaluating these bills (and the elected officials who support them) don’t usually watch legislative debates, look up the medical facts of fetal development, or even read the actual bills. They decide what to think largely based on media accounts. By accepting the “heartbeat bill” narrative, media outlets, including Slate, have discussed the merits of the legislation on the anti-choice movement’s terms.
The white nationalist surge that helped lift Donald Trump to the presidency has highlighted the importance of using factual language to explain things as they are. Many have criticized media outlets for using the self-determined, value-neutral term “alt-right” to label groups that could more plainly be called “neo-Nazi,” “white nationalist,” or just plain “racist.” Using medically accurate language to describe reproductive health procedures is just as important to helping laypeople understand what politicians are actually pushing.
That’s why you won’t see me using the term “baby” to describe a theoretical or actual fetus, even though I know that most people who carry their pregnancies to term call their fetuses babies well before they’re born. Rewire has decided to call laws that let people and corporations opt out of civil rights protections “religious imposition” laws, instead of the better-known term “religious exemption” laws, since the laws allow people to impose their religious doctrines on others without protecting anyone’s personal religious practice. Look to Congress for one of the most obvious recent examples of politicized language: Republicans call their pointless, ongoing, $1.5 million taxpayer-funded fetal tissue witch-hunt the “Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.” Democrats call it the “Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health.”
Granted, “fetal pole cardiac activity” is a lot harder to mentally grasp, explain to readers, and fit in a headline than “heartbeat.” I’m not going to promise that Slate won’t ever use the term to describe Ohio’s bill or others like it; in my opinion, using quotation marks does a good job of distancing the facts from biased right-wing terminology. But Gunter’s piece is a good reminder that all coverage of reproductive health legislation should, at the very least, explain the medicine behind the spin.