Tennessee senator: Preborn baby’s brain and heart not ‘fully functional’ until 26 weeks


A Tennessee state Senator recently claimed during testimony surrounding a heartbeat bill that a preborn baby has a “fully functional brain and heart” only at the end of the second trimester. The outrageous declaration came during a hearing on a proposed pro-life heartbeat law in the state senate.

During its Summer Study Session in mid-August, Tennessee state senators listened to testimony for and against the proposed fetal heartbeat law, HB0077, that passed in the state legislature in March. The bill is now before the state senate. The exchange took place when Senator Katrina Robinson, a Democrat from Memphis, grilled Hal Rounds, a lawyer from Fayetteville county and a Tennessee Tea Party leader. Blasting the Roe v. Wade decision for its agnosticism on the question of when human life begins, Rounds referred to the Tennessee Uniform Determination of Death Act, which defines death as the “irreversible cessation” of heart and brain functions, as an objective medical standard for defining conditions for human life. Rounds asserted that “the law presumes that if there is a brain functioning and a heart functioning then life is functioning, in the womb or anywhere else. It makes clear that life has a legally medical consensus, even though the court said there is no consensus.”

At the end of Rounds’ testimony about personhood and viability, Senator Robinson asked him when in the womb “a fully functional brain and heart” develops. Rounds, not a scientist by profession and without facts at hand, replied, jokingly, “not until they’re 20 years old.” When pressed for when the brain and heart are developed in pregnancy, Rounds said he would let medical professionals determine that, but it was “before what is considered viability by the Supreme Court.” Rounds is referring to the formation of the heart, which begins functioning by 16-21 days after conception. The neural tube in a baby closes at three weeks gestation, around when the heart begins to beat, at which point the brain begins to function. The corpus callosum, the which connects both hemispheres of the brain, is formed at 11-12 weeks. However, the human brain’s development is long and complex, not considered fully developed until well into adulthood.

But Senator Robinson disagreed. “It’s the end of the second trimester,” replied Robinson, to which Rounds correctly pointed out, “The heart’s beating way before that.” Robinson glared at Rounds and snapped back, “It’s the end of the second trimester, sir. I’m a nurse; what are you?”

READ: The science is clear: At 22 days, a baby’s heart begins to beat


Robinson’s comments were beside the point. Human life doesn’t depend on a “fully functional” brain or heart, whatever that vague phrase means. It is an insulting and discriminatory comment towards people who live with brain injuries, mental health conditions, and other diagnoses that affect the brain.

It is a scientific certainty that a new and distinct life begins at the moment of conception. Additionally, Robinson’s assertions were profoundly misleading about the reality of a preborn baby’s development in the womb. A baby’s heart in the womb, as previously stated, begins beating 16-21 days after conception, and the heart completes dividing into four chambers by week nine.

With respect to brain development, there are plenty of signs of neural activity, even in the very early phases of a baby’s development in the womb. According to Dr. Katrina Furth, a neuroscientist who focuses on preborn babies, in just the sixth week, the forebrain doubles in size and neurons begin growing at a rate of 250,000 per minute over the next 21 weeks. By week 11, as Dr. Furth notes, the baby “performs complex behaviors that require working neural circuits, including hiccupping, stretching, grasping objects, and turning away from loud noises.”

Yet ultimately, as Dr. Furth points out, “Neurological development has no bearing on whether a human has a right to life and protection.”

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