Drawing of heartbeat readings.

Deep in the Heartbeat of Texas

On September 1, 2021, Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), which bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, went into effect. A heartbeat, or “cardiac activity,” can be detected with a transvaginal ultrasound as early as six weeks from the date of the pregnant person’s last period. Because few people know they are pregnant this soon, SB8 effectively bans almost all abortions. Anti-abortion advocates have been pushing heartbeat bills for the last decade, arguing that a beating heart “is the universally recognized indicator of life,” as Faith2Action, the group that wrote the model heartbeat law, puts it.

Supporters of heartbeat laws deploy allegedly scientific arguments in favor of abortion restrictions as part of a strategy to use “secular” rather than religious arguments. The Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council puts out a pamphlet titled, The Best Pro-life Arguments for Secular Audiences, which asserts: “Establishing the evidence of the beginnings of human life will ground your argumentation in science, giving you a firm foundation for additional arguments and preempting the charge that you are basing your position on faith or religious belief” (1). One of the “facts on human development” listed in this text is: “The cardiovascular system is the first major system to function. At about 22 days after conception the child’s . . . heartbeat can be detected on ultrasound” (5).

The science behind the claims of Faith2Action and the Center for Human Dignity is questionable. There is no inherent reason to privilege a beating heart as a sign of life, let alone personhood. After all, the heart is only one of several vital organs, and it does not in all situations signify life. It is possible for someone to be “brain dead” but still have a heartbeat. And another equally important sign of life – the ability to draw breath – is not present until birth. The primacy of the heart in the pro-life rhetoric owes more to the cultural significance of the heart, a significance dating back to ancient Greece, than to any modern scientific discovery about the heart or embryology.

Marble bust of Aristotle.
Bust of Aristotle in marble, copied from a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

That an embryo has a beating heart very early in its development is not a new revelation of modern embryology. It is a fact that has been recognized since antiquity. In the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle made a set of observations that would be repeated by generations of scientists and in countless biology classrooms. He cracked open chicken eggs on successive days after fertilization to see the stages of development. He noted that a small, pulsating point of blood – the tiny beginnings of the heart – was the first visible feature, appearing “as early as the third day.” He also noted that in miscarried embryos, one always finds a heart, no matter how early in pregnancy the miscarriage occurs and no matter how tiny the embryo is. The heart, he said, is the first organ to be formed and the last to die. But the heart is not just the first organ to appear in the embryo. It is also the first among the organs, as a king is first among his subjects. Aristotle describes the heart as a “primary or dominating part” of the body with other parts of the body “subservient” to it. He thus considered the heart the source of the body’s vital heat, the source of sensation and motion, and even the source of intelligence and emotion.

Certainly not all thinkers in the centuries after Aristotle agreed with his views on the heart. There was a lively debate about which organ formed first in embryonic development. The Roman physician Galen (130–210), a towering influence in the western medical tradition, argued that the liver formed first, then the heart, then the brain. But even Galen and others who did not accept that the heart was the very first organ to form agreed that the heart appeared within a month of conception, and that the heart gave heat and life to the rest of the body. Galen called the heart “the source of the innate heat [and] living power.”

For Aristotle, the heart was the source of rational thought as well as emotions. This, too, was a subject of controversy. Galen accepted that passions and desires emanate from the heart, but believed the cognitive faculties resided in the brain. While it might seem that such a view would make the brain and not the heart the site of the self, that was not the case. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, and for generations of Christian theologians who were influenced by them, the human ability to reason was what connected us to the divine. Our brains linked us to God; our hearts were what made us human.

Greek understandings of the heart became deeply embedded in western Christian culture. The writers of the New Testament were men with Greek educations and cultural backgrounds and their texts reflect both the sense of the heart as an organ that moves blood and the heart as the source of vital heat and the core of personhood.[1] When Matthew praises “the pure in heart” or warns that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies,” he, like Aristotle, expresses the notion that the heart is the person (Matthew 5:8 and 15:19 KJV). In Luke’s Nativity narrative, he tells us that Mary, hearing from the shepherds that angels were singing the praises of her newborn son, “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 KJV). Here and elsewhere in the New Testament the heart signifies interiority. It is repeatedly described as a treasure box, where one stores memories, desires, thoughts, and emotions. The heart, understood as the essence of a person’s humanity, has been ubiquitous in Christian preaching and theology for the past two millennia.

Because of this history, our language is saturated with heart metaphors. An intimate conversation is a “heart to heart.” “We feel things “from the bottom of our hearts.” We know things “in our hearts.” When we are sad, we are encouraged to “take heart.” A cruel person is “heartless” or “cold-hearted.” A kind person is “big-hearted” or “soft-hearted.” Some things are “not for the faint of heart.” And in the realm of romantic love, our hearts can be given, stolen, lost, broken, aching, mended, fickle or true. We may know that the heart is a muscular organ that pulses in response to electrical stimuli, but every day we speak of it as the part of us that thinks and feels. The part that makes us human. The part that makes us who we are. When anti-abortion advocates refer to the heart, they draw as much on this Christian tradition as on the sciences of cardiology or embryology.

After Texas SB8 went into effect, Janet Porter, founder of Faith2Action, posted on the organization’s website: “[T]o deny a heartbeat is to deny science. To ignore it is heartless.” The statement encapsulates the way pro-life advocates rely on the powerful and pervasive associations between the heart and personhood to construct arguments that claim to be both scientific and ideologically neutral. They are neither. Despite their repeated claim that the fetal heartbeat is a “scientific fact,” pro-life supporters invest the heart with spiritual significance, covertly slipping the soul back into the debate.

Map of heartbeat bills.
Fetal heartbeat bills by state, with blue indicating laws in effect and dark grey indicating laws blocked by court order. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

When the first heartbeat bill was proposed in Ohio in 2011, Faith2Action recruited two pregnant women to undergo ultrasound exams in front of the Ohio Senate Health Committee. The women were Heather Raubenholt, 24, who was fifteen weeks pregnant, and Erin Glockner, 25, who was nine weeks pregnant. Raubenholt and Glockner were positioned out of view while the ultrasound images of their fetuses were projected on a large video monitor for all to see. The heartbeat of Raubenholt’s fetus was amplified to be audible to the entire chamber. While concerns about maintaining privacy during a medical procedure in which the two women were at least partially unclothed may have dictated the decision to shield Raubenholt and Glockner, the effect of two disembodied fetuses visible on a large screen and “speaking” to the assembled crowd was also calculated to convey an argument about the independence and autonomy of the fetuses.

The spectacle created in Ohio in 2011 is an apt metaphor for heartbeat laws themselves. They render the pregnant person invisible and irrelevant. Just as Raubenholt and Glockner were removed from view (and many articles about the event did not include their names), these laws erase human beings with unique life histories, needs and desires, thoughts and memories, family and friends. Just as the sound of the fetal heartbeat was made loud enough to fill a legislative chamber, so too do these laws amplify the sound of the fetal heartbeat until it drowns out the voice of the pregnant person.

Notes

  1. Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Broken Hearts: The Violation of Biblical Law,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, No. 3 (Sep. 2005):731–757, 731–732.

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One Comment

Susan

Incredible article, how many years ago we worked this out and here we are again. A woman’s body is just that, her own. And to dismiss an adult while amplifying an embryonic heartbeat to a crowd of politicians! I am embarrassed by our ignorance and backward thinking. How will we ever survive this horrible trend on our planet? Is there hope? As a nurse and scientist I feel afraid. Much aloha and many thanks for your effort here.

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