The Problem With Texas Senate Bill 8

Over the past week, the Texas Senate has passed many anti-abortion bills that would severely limit a woman’s autonomy over her own body. Among these bills is Senate Bill 8, which is a variation of the fetal heartbeat bill that proliferated in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio during the Trump Presidency. Many of these bills were ultimately ruled unconstitutional for going against the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. 

This current bill aims to outlaw abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Supporters of this bill claim that it protects the most vulnerable population of society, but oftentimes in these situations, it is the mothers who are left with a baby they do not have the resources to care for who are the most vulnerable. The bill would also allow citizens to sue those who help someone get an abortion or perform an abortion themselves for a minimum of $10,000.

The most problematic part of this bill is its use of the term “heartbeat” to define the line for legal abortion. A fetal heartbeat can be detected around five and a half to seven weeks into a pregnancy. However, this presents an unfair paradox. Most women only find out about their pregnancy between weeks four and seven. Additionally, doctors will wait until weeks six to eight to use an ultrasound to detect the pregnancy. Even then, a fetal Dopler test can only be reliably performed between eight to twelve weeks to detect the heartbeat.

pregnant woman Photo by freestocks from Unsplash

The term heartbeat itself is also extremely misleading. Many assume that the use of the word “heartbeat” means the heart is fully developed at six weeks. However, the child is still an embryo at this point, as it is not medically considered a fetus until 11 weeks after conception. At six weeks, the embryo is, at its largest, only 0.25 inches, which is the size of a pea. 

At this stage in the pregnancy, a fully developed cardiovascular system is not present, and the “heart” that these bills identify is just a collection of cells that will ultimately direct contractions of the developed heart. There is no organ present that can contract and relax to pump blood through the body or no chambers through which blood flows.

The organ systems of the body are not in sync at this time either, meaning that the brain isn’t directing the heart to pump, a function that would take place in a developed embryo. It’s only at weeks six to seven that the brain separates into three distinct lobes and is identified as its own structure. 

Ultrasound technology has made great strides over the past few decades and can detect electrical activity even in these primitive embryonic cells. This collection of heart cells, however, would not be able to sustain life outside of the womb. At the earliest, the fetus is viable at 24 weeks, which is 18 weeks past when the heartbeat bill would make abortion illegal.

The only exception for this bill is in the case of a medical emergency. It does not make any exceptions for cases of rape or incest. The bill must pass through the House for it to become law, but just its passage through the Senate is a dangerous sign of the power that the government holds over patient autonomy.