People Support Fetal ‘Heartbeat’ Legislation Until You Tell Them What It Does

Using language that is "intentionally emotional" draws public support for extreme abortion laws, but people's opinions change once they understand the intention of such legislation.

[Photo: Governor Brian Kemp listens on during an event.]
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R) today signed a near total abortion ban (dubbed a “heartbeat” ban) after contentious floor debate between pro-choice legislators and Republicans hoping to challenge Roe v. Wade and end legal abortion in the United States. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

While polling shows banning abortion once a fetal “heartbeat” has been detected does, in fact, pull at the public’s heartstrings, people’s opinion changes when they know the policy would end access to abortion care for most.

Republican lawmakers in legislatures across the United States have poured political capital into rushing through so-called heartbeat bans, which would make abortion care illegal around six weeks into pregnancy—before many even know they’re pregnant. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) today signed a near total abortion ban (dubbed a “heartbeat” ban) after contentious floor debate between pro-choice legislators and Republicans hoping to challenge Roe v. Wade and end legal abortion in the United States. Like other near total abortion bans, Georgia’s legislation will face legal challenges; legal experts say the law is blatantly unconstitutional and might wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

The anti-choice language used to describe such a law—imbuing embryos with personhood by claiming the presence of fetal heart tones indicates a human who deserves constitutional protections—has proved effective, as seen in recent polling conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Fifty percent of respondents to a Kaiser poll said they supported their state lawmakers passing a “heartbeat” ban, with 44 percent opposed. That opposition jumped to 56 percent once respondents were told that so-called heartbeat legislation would ban abortion before many people know they are pregnant.

Republican women were by far the most supportive of outlawing abortion care six weeks into pregnancy, with 77 percent saying they would back a fetal “heartbeat” bill. Republican men were in favor of the ban 64 to 31 percent.

Sixty-five percent of Democratic women said they were against such a ban, while 25 percent said they’d support it, according to Kaiser’s polling. Overall, 65 percent of Democrats who responded to the poll oppose “heartbeat” bans, or near total abortion bans.

At six weeks’ gestation, there is no heart, there is no heartbeat, and there is no fetus. Instead, there is a “fetal pole,” a thick area alongside the yolk sac that extends from one end of an embryo to the other. What can be measured at six weeks is electrical activity in the fetal pole.

Dr. Erin King, an obstetrician/gynecologist in St. Louis and executive director at Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, said using terminology like “heartbeat” to describe an abortion ban confuses the policy goals of such legislation: to criminalize abortion for almost everyone. 

“There is so much misinformation around abortion policy and restrictions. It is important to be as straightforward and transparent as possible when writing or speaking about abortion law changes,” Dr. King told Rewire.News. “Removing language that is intentionally emotional such as ‘heartbeat’ from our discussions and using language that reflects the true intent and outcome of legislation…lets the general public make accurate and informed opinions.”

Proponents of “heartbeat” bills have asked the courts to replace fetal viability with junk science, using a “fetal heartbeat” as the point where state lawmakers could begin ending legal abortion. Fetal viability is around 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R), who will defend Ohio Republicans’ near total abortion ban, recently argued that viability should be thrown out as a legal concept because “the practice of medicine has changed” since abortion was legalized in the United States. 

Meanwhile, 65 percent of respondents to the Kaiser poll said Roe should not be overturned, including 80 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents. 56 percent of Republicans said the landmark Supreme Court decision should be thrown out.

The use of “heartbeat” to name an abortion restriction is just the latest use of disingenuous language used by anti-choice activists to manipulate public opinion, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute.

“Abortion opponents time and again have used terminology to intentionally confuse the public into supporting abortion restrictions and bans. But when the public understands the real impact of the ban or restriction that support disappears,” Nash told Rewire.News. “Once people understand that these laws would ban abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, making it nearly impossible to access services, people oppose them.”

The glut of news on social media timelines, Dr. King said, makes it “impossible” to follow every bit of abortion-related news and understand what those developments might mean for people seeking abortion services.

“Using clear outcomes-driven language and relating the specific restriction directly to a person’s real life or the lives of their loved ones allows people to be more informed in their opinion making,” she said. “You should not be leaving the concept of banning abortion in the abstract or allowing the application to others but not ourselves.”