Opinion: Bad science pervades the abortion debate

Daniel Sprockett

Daniel Sprockett

Daniel Sprockett is a researcher in the KSU Department of Anthropology and a columnist at the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]

In the 2007 Oscar-winning movie “Juno,” the title character is persuaded to forgo an abortion when a classmate protesting at a women’s health clinic informs her that her baby has fingernails. And now life has imitated art, when the anti-abortion group Faith2Action tried using a similar tactic on Ohio’s state legislature.

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer

reports, two fetuses were called to the witness stand last Wednesday to testify before an Ohio legislative committee. The committee is reviewing a bill that would outlaw all abortions in Ohio after the first heartbeat can be detected inside a mother’s womb.

Two pregnant women, carrying nine and fifteen-week old fetuses, were given public ultrasounds to determine if a heartbeat could be detected. The bill, sponsored by

Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R-Napoleon) and co-sponsored by 49 members of the Ohio House, would require ultrasounds of all women seeking abortions in Ohio. If any heartbeat whatsoever is detected, then the fetus is deemed “viable” and any abortion procedures are made illegal unless the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother.

Dubbed the “Heartbeat Bill,” H.B. No. 125 would ban abortions as early as 18 days after conception, meaning that a woman’s legal choice to pursue an abortion would effectively be restricted until before the vast majority of women even realize they are pregnant.

Soliciting “expert testimony” from an unborn fetus is clearly a publicity stunt meant to draw national attention, and as Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio told the Plain Dealer, “It’s obvious this committee is a lot more interested in making headlines than in giving women better access to health care.”

While I agree that this bill trivializes women’s health in favor of advancing particular religious beliefs in the public sphere, the larger problem I have is that this bill is based on bad science.

As LiveScience reports, multiple studies have shown that sonograms have little impact on a woman’s choice concerning abortion. One recent study showed that when given the choice, nearly three quarters of women choose to see the ultrasound, yet in this case, none elected to forgo the abortion procedure.

More relevant, however, is the issue that having a heartbeat is neither a complete indication of viability of the fetus, nor does it speak to its ability to perceive its surroundings. Heart cells normally begin rhythmically contracting by around the fifth or sixth week, which means at this point the fetus is smaller than a grain of rice. In fact, such early sonograms usually detect the presence of the embryonic yolk sac, not the fetus itself.

Furthermore, we’ve known for a long time that a beating heart is not a good indication of life or “personhood,” since hearts are normally quite able to continue beating completely independent of the body. Even more amazingly, when heart cells are spread on a piece of synthetic mesh, the entire mesh begins to synchronously beat, just as a heart does.

These public dialogues about such contentious subjects are often muddied by irrationality and cheap appeals to emotion.

We need to consciously re-direct our discussion so that we’re basing our public policy on sound science and the real issues of human suffering, not the public promotion of a religiously motivated agenda.