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The misleading echo of a heartbeat

According to pro-abortion activists in the US, there is no heartbeat at six weeks and you cannot weigh the rights of a clump of cells against a woman's life

The foetal heartbeat issue has been at the centre of a dispute between pro- and anti-abortion activists in the US.
The foetal heartbeat issue has been at the centre of a dispute between pro- and anti-abortion activists in the US. (iStockphoto)

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While talking about life on Instagram, essayist Gideon Jacobs wrote “images, even in the age of Photoshop, are truthy. They still serve as relatively trustworthy evidence that whatever scene they portray actually occurred”.

I was thinking about that when I saw a set of images in The Guardian earlier this month. Set against a pale blue background, each photograph shows a foetus at the very early stages of gestation, four weeks, six weeks, nine weeks and so on. If it hadn’t been for the captions, I would have assumed the white stuff in the petri dish was a wet cotton ball or a damp paper napkin.

The massive uproar over the collapse of reproductive rights in the US prompted the publication of these images. Activists wanted people to know, really know, what you are terminating when you have a medical termination of pregnancy at six weeks or eight weeks.

Also Read: Can you exercise when you are pregnant?

I saw more than one reader on social media respond sincerely that they found the images baffling because at six weeks of pregnancy they had heard a heartbeat when they went for their first ultrasound. How could it be a blob?

This was a question I too had until very recently. I had been reading the background of proposed “no abortion after heartbeat” legislations in some American states. Pro-abortion activists said there is no heartbeat at six weeks and you cannot weigh the rights of a clump of cells against the life of an adult woman. How could this be? I thought. As an expecting parent, doctors had told me cheerfully to listen to the heartbeat at the first ultrasound. If the foetus grows its organs little by little and it is only around 20 weeks that it has a heart, what was that I had heard? That all of us prospective parents have heard?

Nisha Verma, an American ob-gyn, explains succinctly in a 2021 NPR report: “When I use a stethoscope to listen to an (adult) patient’s heart, the sound that I’m hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves…. At six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist…The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.”

In the vicious war against reproductive rights in the US, pro-abortion activists have had to work hard to make this explanation known. They have quoted the actual product manual of the foetal Doppler machine, which says “it is important to remember that the sound you hear is an artificial sound, the frequency (pitch) of which is proportional to the velocity of the moving target…. It is not the real sound made by blood rushing through an artery or vein, or movement of the fetal heart”.

Let me say that this revelation blew my mind. I had obsessively read websites and books that told me that at six weeks the baby is only the size of a pea; I had not made the connection that the pea-sized foetus is not some manner of perfect miniature with miniature organs. As if foetuses look like Tinker Bell. As if foetuses look like the fairies in one of the earliest photographic frauds perpetuated in history. Back in 1917, a pair of young girls convinced Arthur Conan Doyle—yes, the Sherlock Holmes author—that they had photographed fairies in their garden. Other people were sceptical. The novelist Maurice Hewlett said, “And knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the Miss Carpenters have pulled one of them.” But poor Doyle wanted to believe, so he did.

This artificial sound of the Doppler machine that convinces millions of prospective parents around the world that the blob they want/wanted desperately/do not want at all is/was alive? To me, it felt as massive a failure of science as the flat-earth theory. But that’s just me.

In India, where the Supreme Court has recently weighed in to say that all women, regardless of marital status, have the right to abortion up to 24 weeks, the “heartbeat” is only one of a million factors that affect a woman’s decision. We live in a country where women have very little autonomy over their reproductive choices and even less access to reproductive healthcare. You have very little control over having a baby or not having one. If through some complex series of circumstances (including the only doctor you have access to being afraid of accusations of sex selective abortion by the police) you do end up giving birth to a baby, no one is legally obliged to help you keep it alive.

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag once wrote, “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one.” One could say the same about laws, so I, for one, am ready to get whatever legal toffees I get anytime.

While on the subject of photographs that change your life forever, this week I saw what I thought was a still from a new J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation. Red eyes, sharp tusks, the I want to eat you expression. It all added up to “orc about to attack the heroine’s village”. But no, it was a winning entry from Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition. Eugenijus Kavaliauskas, a Lithuanian photographer, had used a macro lens to photograph the face of an… ant!

Every language that I understand a smattering of has a word for the ant which is soft and sweet: urumb (Malayalam), iruve (Kannada), cheenti (Hindi). If macro lens was part of our ancient memories and they had seen that angry face, oh, we would have very different words for our very terrifying friends.

I have been stepping very lightly on the ground since I saw that photograph.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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