What does it really mean to be 6 weeks pregnant?
Now that several states have passed bills that effectively ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, the new laws raise many questions about early treatment for pregnancy and miscarriage.
The fetal heartbeat can usually be seen on an ultrasound around six weeks pregnant, but many women have no idea that they are pregnant at this time. So when do women usually realize they are pregnant? And how often are pregnancies unplanned? We’ll explain all of this and more.
How is the duration of pregnancy measured?
It sounds strange, but doctors measure the onset of pregnancy as the first day of your last period. Why? They track the length of pregnancy using a nearly 200-year-old calculation called Naegele’s Rule, named after Franz Karl Naegele, the German obstetrician who created it in the 1800s.
Here’s how it works: To determine when a woman is due to give birth, doctors start with the first day of the woman’s last period, count down three calendar months, then add one year and seven days to that date.
The rule is somewhat confusing, as conception usually only occurs around 14 days. after on the first day of your period, assuming you have a 28-day cycle (which many women don’t do for a variety of reasons). The reason doctors still use the last menstrual cycle as a benchmark is that it’s hard to know exactly when the sperm fertilized the egg.
So when doctors say a woman is six weeks pregnant, it usually means the embryo started developing about four weeks ago.
The heart, which can be seen flickering on ultrasound, is still maturing and cannot be heard until several weeks later.
This is perhaps the simplest way to put it: six weeks pregnant is two weeks after a woman has missed her period.
What does the latest abortion legislation mean for women whose pregnancies are unsustainable?
Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio passed heart rate bills this year, which effectively ban abortion after six weeks, and other states are ready to follow in their footsteps.
Most notably, the Governor of Alabama recently enacted the law the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, which prohibits abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalizes the procedure for doctors.
According to American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one of the greatest concerns of their members today is how to interpret the scope and application of these laws in their practice. In some cases, it goes beyond providing abortion care to questioning treatments for miscarriages like dilation and curettage, which remove tissue from inside the uterus.
For the moment, abortion is still legal because these laws have not yet entered into force. In addition, the legislation is should be challenged in court because of the precedent set by Roe v. Wade of the 1973 Supreme Court, who says abortion is legal until the fetus reaches viability, usually at 24 weeks.
When do women first find out that they are pregnant?
While there is no clear data on when women typically find out they are pregnant, Dr. Dana R. Gossett, vice president of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California at San Francisco, said that in her practice she often sees women who don’t realize they are pregnant until after six weeks.
“Typically, clinical symptoms like fatigue and nausea don’t start until after six weeks,” said Dr. Gossett, although some women are more susceptible to early pregnancy symptoms.
Additionally, women with irregular menstrual cycles might find it “especially difficult” to find out that they are pregnant right away, said Dr Gossett. “What are they supposed to do? Check for pregnancy tests every four or five weeks?
Dr Sarah Horvath, Family Planning Researcher at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agreed.
“Unless a woman is actively trying to get pregnant, she is unlikely to know she is pregnant at six weeks,” she said.
Nikki Young, 42, who lives in Riverview, Florida, said she and her husband were surprised to find out eight years ago that she was pregnant.
“It was mixed feelings,” she said.
At the time, their second child was about a year old and she was not actively monitoring her period.
“I didn’t really follow it that closely,” she recalls. But then, one day, she noticed that she had spots and realized that she had completely missed her period. A home pregnancy test and a doctor’s visit confirmed her third child was on the way.
How many women have unintended pregnancies?
Almost half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.
A 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States from 2008 to 2011 and found that 45 percent of pregnancies in 2011 were unplanned. This represents 2.8 million unintended pregnancies, of which more than 40 percent would end in abortion.
While the rate of unwanted pregnancies declined from 2008 to 2011, the percentage of women who requested abortions for their unwanted pregnancies changed very little. And in 2011, as in 2008, unintended pregnancies remained most common among poor and cohabiting women and girls.
“Low-income women, rural women and women with limited access to health care will be disproportionately affected by these laws,” said Dr Horvath. “Wealthy women will be able to travel to other states or other countries, as they did before Roe v. Wade.”