Following the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in the US, that nation is struggling with two moral/philosophical questions:
- Is the unborn human fetus a person, and if so from when?
- Does the unborn human fetus deserve legal protection, and if so from when?
These are independent questions – a puppy or kitten is not a person, but nevertheless has legal protection from animal cruelty. The now-repealed Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) decisions essentially answered the second question as “yes, from viability.”
These questions are moral and philosophical, not scientific. However, scientific questions do arise in the debate. Is the fetus alive? Yes, obviously. Is it human? Well, it has different hemoglobin from adult humans, but the fetus is obviously Homo sapiens. Does the fetus have a heartbeat? Surprisingly, that seems to be controversial, although every textbook I have seen agrees that the heart is functional very early (how else would the developing fetus get oxygen and nutrients?). To quote some sources:
- “The heart is the first organ to develop. In the human embryo, the heart begins beating at about 21 days after conception [i.e. 5 weeks after LMP = last menstrual period].” (Anatomy and Physiology of the Circulatory and Ventilatory Systems, page 2)
- “The fetal–placental circulation begins at about 9 days postfertilization … A functional circulation is established by the end of the third developmental week [i.e. 5 weeks after LMP].” (Fetal MRI, page 405)
- “In a developing embryo, the heart has developed enough by day 21 post-fertilization to begin beating [i.e. 5 weeks after LMP]. Circulation patterns are clearly established by the fourth week of embryonic life. It is critical to the survival of the developing human that the circulatory system forms early to supply the growing tissue with nutrients and gases, and to remove waste products.” (Anatomy and Physiology 2e)
- “Circulation of fetal blood in the placental circulation begins approximately 21 days postfertilization in humans [i.e. 5 weeks after LMP].” (Handbook of Developmental Neurotoxicology, page 68)
- “1. Fetal heart development begins during the first month of gestation. At about 21 days of gestation, the fetal heart begins beating, and blood begins circulating [i.e. 5 weeks after LMP]. Between the second and seventh weeks of gestation [i.e. 4 to 9 weeks after LMP], the primitive fetal heart undergoes a series of changes that create the four-chambered heart and its great arteries. 3. During gestation, the lungs are nonfunctional, and fetal oxygenation occurs via the placenta.” (Pediatric Nursing, page 223)
In my view, accurate discussion of the scientific facts is a necessary preliminary to addressing the moral and philosophical questions.
Doppler ultrasound is routinely used to detect fetal heartbeat and the velocity of fetal blood flow. The scientific principle known as the Doppler effect allows the detection of motion. It is the principle behind speed cameras, and it allows bats to “hear” the fluttering wings of a distant insect. During first-trimester screening (at around 11 to 13 weeks after LMP), professional Doppler ultrasound devices are sensitive enough not only to detect fetal heartbeat, but to detect blood flow abnormalities in various parts of the fetal circulatory system.
Fetal heartbeat at 13 weeks (from here). S is the ventricular systolic wave, D the early diastolic, A the atrial contraction.
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