Hearts and (Versus?) Minds: Bachmann’s Ultrasound Bill

Michele Bachmann’s gone and made an ultrasound bill. It wouldn’t ban abortion after a detectable heartbeat, as in the Ohio heartbeat bill. And it doesn’t require a vaginal probe and a scolding lecture performed by a doctor under threat, as did Rick Perry’s bill. (So… yay?)

This bill—“Heartbeat Informed Consent Act”—would require a woman to get an ultrasound and view the images before being allowed to have an abortion. The technician must describe any heart activity that she or he detects. According to Bachmann, the goal here is to make sure that the woman has “the very best information with which to make that decision.” (Good thing she’s still about leaving the decision up to the woman, because otherwise she might be disheartened by evidence suggesting that viewing an ultrasound makes little difference in the outcome of that decision.)

Yes, that’s the line on ultrasound bills. They give women some sort of necessary information. But why does the cardiac activity of the fetus constitute “the very best information,” the sine qua non necessary for informed consent? Because, I mean, lots of other information could arguably be pertinent to the decision. Off the top of my head, possibly-pertinent information could include things like the fetus’ or mother’s prognosis if it’s a medically risky pregnancy. “All the information” might include the costs of caring for the child, or a hard look at a dank and rotting economy. Or, hey, what about the mother’s mental health? Right, that.

But oh, the heart has its own reasons! The idea that the heart is some kind of special seat of personhood, of moral worth, and of authentic personhood, is a very old one. It was the heart that was the key to afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion; God famously hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus; and the heart is where Mary pondered the angel’s tidings. Some classical authors, not yet grasping the function of the brain, thought the heart was the body’s reasoning organ, while others thought it was the locus of emotion. Eventually it became associated with romance, and today people unburdened by sophisticated evidence-based understandings of human psychology bandy about distinctions between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.”

Anti-abortion activists and politicians have thus employed a cultural symbol, and so what? Anyone who makes a case for something employs symbols and metaphors in order to do so. It would not serve Bachmann’s (or other antiabortion legislators’) goals nearly so well to introduce a bill saying that a woman needs to be informed about the development of a fetus’ kidneys or stomach. People do not draw a moral line on abortions after 8 weeks based on the fact that that’s when some fetuses begin to pee. They don’t think that women must consider—or, more accurately, must be protected, by law, from not considering—that the fetus has, at this point, joined the ranks of the peeing; there is no call to require ultrasound technicians to point and say “That’s the amniotic fluid. Some of it is made of the fetus’ pee.”

Still, it’s one thing to employ a symbol (in this case, the heart as seat of identity) in the service of making your case. It’s another to suggest that “informed consent” must involve a kind of ritualized last chance for you to make your case. That the pregnant woman can’t possibly really know what she’s getting herself into unless she has been made to lie down, get an ultrasound, and consider whether Michele Bachmann’s views on abortion are morally persuasive and the fetus might really be a person after all. It would be like if anyone undergoing baptism were required to read a pamphlet in which friendly and well-meaning atheist evolutionary psychologists explain their account of what Christians call “sin,” and why their account is superior. I mean, they need to have all the information, don’t they?