This is a 5-week-old human fetus.


It’s an awesomely cool period of development. Organogenesis is well under way, segmentation is completely, limb buds are forming. The heart is beating, which is neat, but then you have to keep in mind that you can tease a heart apart into individual cells in a dish and the cells will throb, so it’s not exactly a magical indicator of sentience. Also, the embryo is only 2-3 millimeters long, which I find to be a highly evocative size: that’s exactly how big my zebrafish embryos are when they have the same level of organization, with segments and organ rudiments and a beating heart.

In Ohio, they are proposing to have these fetuses “testify” in support of an anti-choice bill.

Two fetuses will be presented as witnesses before an Ohio legislative committee that is hearing a bill to outlaw abortions after the first heartbeat can be detected inside a woman’s womb.

The fetuses will appear live and in color before the committee on a video screen projecting ultrasound images taken from their pregnant mothers’ bodies. Janet Folger Porter, head of Faith2Action, an anti-abortion group, said the fetuses will be the youngest witnesses to ever testify when they come in front of the House Health and Aging Committee Wednesday morning.

Oh, really? The legislators might want to read up on first trimester ultrasound, first of all.

Transabdominal ultrasound cannot reliably diagnose pregnancies that are less than 6 weeks gestation. Transvaginal ultrasound, by contrast, can detect pregnancies earlier, at approximately 4½ to 5 weeks gestation. Prompt diagnosis made possible by transvaginal ultrasound can, therefore, result in earlier treatment.

Early ultrasound examinations will primarily detect the presence of the extraembryonic sac, not the embryo itself. It’s too small. Around 5 weeks, you might be able to see a fuzzy small blob with a flutter that is the beating heart, but that’s about it, and you do have to use transvaginal ultrasound to pick it up — that is, you have to insert the ultrasound probe deep into the vagina. That isn’t usually done; any mothers out there will tell you about the gel smeared all over their bellies and the external probe pressed up against them, but the transvaginal examinations are only done if there is suspicion of something going wrong.

So I’ll be very curious to see what these “‘live and in color” images actually look like. I’m already suspicious that they’ll be faked — I can already guarantee you that the color will be entirely false. But maybe someone has a higher resolution ultrasound machine than I’m aware of, which is entirely possible.

But even if they do get a nice image of a curled, fishlike embryo that is maybe a tenth as sharp as the worst images of zebrafish embryos that I see in my low-power dissecting scope, so what? It’s not testifying. It’s twitching. You’d get a more intelligent response if you dragged a cow in front of the committee and asked it to moo against slaughterhouses.

And the bill is ridiculous. They want to prohibit all abortions of embryos that have a detectable heartbeat…but 1) heartbeat isn’t a valid measure of personhood, and 2) pragmatically, it shuts down almost all abortions. The heart starts beating at approximately one month after fertilization; the woman may not have even noticed more than a delayed period at that time, and the early symptoms of some water retention and possibly morning sickness are unreliable. There will be many women who are responsible and want to end a pregnancy as early as possible who will be denied a first trimester abortion because it was too late when they were diagnosed!

Ohioans: bills sponsored by the deranged lunatics really shouldn’t be passed. I’m hoping your lawmakers will realize that during this ginned-up spectacle.