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A new abortion law in Texas, SB 8, bans abortion after a fetal heart beat is detected, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
When counting weeks in pregnancy, the calendar begins with the first day of the woman’s last period. That means that a woman with a typical cycle is four weeks pregnant by the time she misses her period.
Women with irregular cycles often don't know they are pregnant until later than six weeks.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrongly characterized the timeline of pregnancy, distorting how long a woman would typically know she was pregnant and be able to get an abortion under the state’s new law.
A reporter recently asked Abbott about SB 8, the state’s law that bans doctors from providing an abortion after detecting a fetal heart beat. The law has no exceptions for rape or incest. Under the law, which went into effect Sept. 1, any person can sue abortion providers or anyone who "aids and abets" an abortion. Plaintiffs have the opportunity to win judgments of at least $10,000.
"Why force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term?" the reporter asked.
Abbott replied: "It doesn’t require that at all, because obviously it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion." Abbott then pivoted to vow to "eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas."
Abbott’s statement that women would have at least six weeks to get an abortion drew pushback from abortion rights supporters, who said that the Republican governor was wrong about his pregnancy timeline. We contacted a spokesperson for Abbott to ask for his evidence and did not hear back by our deadline.
Abbott’s comment that a woman would have six weeks to get an abortion distorts the timeline of pregnancy and assumes a woman would know almost immediately after intercourse that she was pregnant.
The law doesn’t state that abortion is banned after six weeks. Instead, the law says that abortion is banned after detection of a fetal heart beat, which is defined as "cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythimc contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac."
The law is named the "Texas Heatbeat Act," but medical experts say that’s a misnomer.
"This is medically inaccurate, because a fetus doesn’t have a developed heart at this time," Dr. Kristyn Brandi, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health and an abortion provider in New Jersey told PolitiFact. "What they are referring to is being able to visualize electric activity in the cells that will eventually become a heart."
This visualization of embryonic cardiac activity often is first able to be visualized around six weeks, but it can be seen at times even before that, Brandi told PolitiFact.
What people think of as a heartbeat in early pregnancy is actually created by electric impulses that are captured by an ultrasound machine and translated by the machine into the sound of a heartbeat – there are no cardiac valves, so there is no sound of them opening and closing, said Dr. Nisha Verma, who provides abortion and is a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a professional organization.
"Those electric impulses do not make the sound of a heartbeat on their own, nor do they suggest that the heart is now developed," Verma said. "This is not a particularly important part of fetal cardiac development, even though it may be an important moment for my patients who are connecting with their pregnancies."
Multiple experts on pregnancy told us that the length of a woman’s pregnancy is measured from the first day of her last menstrual period.
That means that by the time a woman misses her period, she is already considered four weeks pregnant, Verma said. That leaves women with roughly two weeks to make a decision about their pregnancy and, if they choose to do so, have an abortion.
The most sensitive urine pregnancy tests may detect a pregnancy five to seven days before a woman’s first missed period, Verma said. However, doctors recommend that women wait until the first day of their missed period for the most accurate test results.
Not all women realize they are pregnant by that early stage.
"Women with irregular cycles often don't know they are pregnant until later than the six weeks," said Dr. John Thoppil, president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Brandi told us in 2019 that most women don’t realize they’re pregnant until missing at least one period. Often, it takes two.
While women who are trying to conceive may track their cycles closely and know sooner if they are pregnant, that isn’t generally the case for women whose pregnancies are unintended.
In Texas, most patients seeking an abortion must first receive in-person counseling and then wait 24 hours before getting the procedure. The use of telemedicine for medication abortion is prohibited, and insurance policies only cover abortion in limited circumstances, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organization that supports abortion rights and whose research is widely cited.
"At its most generous interpretation, if a person discovers they are pregnant at exactly four weeks on the dot, that person would only have two weeks to decide if they want an abortion, find a clinic that has capacity to accept patients immediately, schedule two separate appointments, arrange for transportation, time off work, find childcare if needed, and pull together the money to pay for the abortion itself, which is typically around $500 at that point in pregnancy," said Liza Fuentes, a senior research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute.
The Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas found in a 2018 survey of 603 abortion patients at 12 facilities that 16% were less than six weeks pregnant at the time of their abortion.
In the recent federal court case about the Texas abortion law, a co-medical director of a center that provides abortions said in 2020 about 10% of abortions were for patients up to five weeks and six days from their last menstral period. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the law to take effect.
Abbott said that the new Texas abortion law "provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion."
Abbott’s statement ignores how the pregnancy timeline is calculated. Doctors count pregnancy as starting from the date of a woman’s last period. That means by the time a woman with a regular cycle misses her first period, she is considered four weeks pregnant, which leaves her with two weeks to get an abortion. A woman with an irregular cycle may discover she has even less time.
We rate this statement False.
Fox 7 Austin, Full news conference of Gov. Abbott signing election bill into law, Sept. 7, 2021
The Recount, Tweet, Sept. 7, 2021
Texas State Legislature, Texas Senate Bill 8, 2021
Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas Senate Bill 8: Medical and Legal Implications, July 2021
Texas Department of Public Safety, Crime in Texas, 2019
Guttmacher Institute, State Facts About Abortion: Texas, January 2021
19th News, Texas’ governor got a basic fact about pregnancy wrong, Sept. 7, 2021
Dallas Morning News, Claims by Gov. Greg Abbott on some aspects of new Texas abortion law draw criticism from experts, Sept. 7, 2021
Texas health and Human Services, Induced Terminations of Pregnancy, 2020 statistics
Austin American-Statesman, All but one state neighboring Texas also have passed 'heartbeat' laws, Sept. 3, 2021
Austin American-Statesman, Gov. Greg Abbott signs SB 1, the GOP voting bill, into law, Sept. 7, 2021
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Statement on Texas SB8, Sept. 1, 2021
U.S. Supreme Court, Whole Woman’s Health et al v Austin Reeve Jackson et al, Sept. 1, 2021
Planned Parenthood Action, Tweet, Sept. 7, 2021
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, Tweet, Sept. 7, 2021
Julian Castro, Tweet, Sept. 7, 2021
Texas Tribune, Why "heartbeat bill" is a misleading name for Texas’ near-total abortion ban, Sept. 2, 2021
Texas Tribune, Texas has banned abortions at about six weeks. But the time frame for pregnant patients to get one is less than two. Sept. 8, 2021
Texas Tribune, Fearful of being sued under new law, three of four San Antonio abortion facilities stop offering the procedure, Sept. 7, 2021
PolitiFact, How many abortions are performed in Texas each year? April 5, 2019
PolitiFact, Swalwell’s tweet about Georgia’s new abortion law is only slightly off-key, May 13, 2019
Email interview, Liza Fuentes, Guttmacher Institute senior research scientist, Sept. 8, 2021
Email interview, Dr Nisha Verma, the Darney-Landy Fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a physician who provides abortion, Sept. 8, 2021
Email interview, Dr. John Thoppil, president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Sept. 8, 2021
Email interview, Kari White, associate professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and a faculty research associate at the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, Sept. 8, 2021
Email interview, Dr. Cristina Wallace Huff, assistant professor in OB/GYN at UT Health San Antonio, Sept. 8, 2021
Email interview, Dr. Kristyn Brandi, Board Chair, Physicians for Reproductive Health and OBGYN and abortion provider in New Jersey, Sept. 8, 2021
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