Credit: Savitskaya iryna / Shutterstock.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran a particularly bad story.

Normally known for its high-quality commentary on everything from literature to politics to culture, the magazine’s lapse is both unusual and disappointing.

The article argues that heartbeats detectable in early pregnancy are not really heartbeats – they’re just contracting cells that can be seen via ultrasound, and that politicians have twisted these images to make people believe that an unborn baby has a heart, and is therefore deserving of the protections afforded other human beings.


The premise of the article, entitled “How Ultrasound Became Political,” is summed up in its sub-headline: “The technology has been used to create sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus.”

Except it turns out, that’s not really true. And in the end, even The Atlantic came pretty darn close to admitting it.

From the original article:

At six weeks, the “heartbeat” is not audible; it is visible, a flickering that takes place between 120 and 160 times per minute on a black-and-white playback screen. As cardiac cells develop, they begin to send electrical pulses that cause their neighbors to contract. Scientists can observe the same effect if they culture cells in a petri dish.

It is dubious to call this movement a ‘heartbeat’; there is no heart to speak of.

The next day, however, that last sentence vanished from the article, and a correction appeared at the bottom of the story:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.


In other words, the article is premised upon the idea that ultrasounds in early pregnancy are a misleading way to convince a woman that at six weeks, the unborn child she is carrying has a heart. Except, oh wait, at six weeks, the unborn child she is carrying does have a heart.

And far from a manipulative concept created by politicians, that flickering of cells known as a fetal heartbeat actually has a medical significance – if it is low at 6-8 weeks of pregnancy, doctors can determine that there is a greater chance of miscarriage in the weeks to come.

It’s to their credit that The Atlantic recognized their error and made a correction. Unfortunately, they did not acknowledge the implications of that correction on their overall argument. Nor did the correction did not extend to the insidious paragraph that followed:

Doctors do not even call this rapidly dividing cell mass a “fetus” until nine weeks into pregnancy. Yet, the current debate shows how effectively politicians have used visual technology to redefine what counts as “life.”

This last sentence is deeply misleading. Politicians opposing abortion are not the ones trying to redefine the idea of “life.” In fact, science has long been on their side in that debate. Just pick up any embryology textbook, and you will find that from a scientific point of view, the beginning of life is quite clear:

“Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr. zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being.”
Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects. 4th edition. Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud.

“The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”
Langman’s Medical Embryology. 7th edition. T. W. Sadler

“This moment of zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic development.”
Human Embryology. 2nd edition. William J. Larsen.

Given The Atlantic’s long history of reputable journalism, let’s hope we see more accuracy and less bias from them in the future.