Magazine Retracts Claim That Fetal Heartbeats Are ‘Imaginary’

Atlantic buries corrections to error-filled piece on ultrasounds

Ultrasound images of an unborn child / Coeur d'Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos for AP

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One of Washington's most influential magazines published several updates to an error-filled article attacking ultrasound technology, without acknowledging the extent of those corrections.

The Atlantic published "How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person" on Tuesday. The 2,500-word article argued that ultrasound technology "has been used to create an imaginary ‘heartbeat' and sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus." The article by Moira Weigel, a Yale doctoral candidate in comparative literature, included at least three major errors that the publication corrected.

The article originally claimed that fetal heartbeats depicted in ultrasound are "imaginary" because there is no heart in the body during early stages of development.

"It is dubious to call this movement a ‘heartbeat'; there is no heart to speak of [at six weeks]," the article said.

atlantic-heartbeat

Screenshot of The Atlantic‘s original article

Medical textbooks and experts disagree.

The Mayo Clinic states on its website that "just four weeks after conception, the neural tube along your baby's back is closing and your baby's heart is pumping blood."

The Atlantic later deleted the sentence from the story, dropping any mention that heartbeats captured by ultrasound were imaginary. Editors revised the headline and sub-headline to read: "How Ultrasounds Became Political: The technology has been used to create sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus."

The article also incorrectly described John Kasich as the governor of Indiana, before correcting the text about the Ohio governor's veto of fetal heartbeat legislation.

The Atlantic initially did not publish a notice of correction along with its edits. A spokesman for the publication acknowledged the delay, saying that "editors were still reviewing" the piece four hours after publication. When a correction was posted to the site, it failed to reflect the many changes made to the piece.

"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," it says.

The publication has been critical of the way other outlets have handled corrections in the past. In a 2011 article, it called on the New York Times to update its "deeply inconsistent, if not outright whimsical" corrections on older stories. The article criticized a corrected 2002 story about John Walker Lindh, the American man captured while fighting for the Taliban in 2001, because readers could encounter an updated version "that shows no trace at all of any correction."

"As its errors continue to surface, its guardians must accept the responsibility of repairing them effectively. Otherwise, they're telling us there's a statute of limitations on their commitment to truth," the piece said.

The Atlantic did not respond to follow-up requests about why it refused to recognize the other errors. The author of the piece did not return a request for comment.

Bill McMorris   Email Bill | Full Bio | RSS
Bill McMorris is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He joins the Beacon from the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, where he was managing editor of Old Dominion Watchdog. He was a 2010 Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation, where he studied state pension shortfalls. His work has been featured on CNN, Fox News, The Economist, Colbert Report, and numerous print publications and radio stations. He lives in Alexandria, Va, with his wife and three daughters. His Twitter handle is @FBillMcMorris. His email address is mcmorris@freebeacon.com.