New style guidance encourages editors to avoid medically misleading terms like ‘heartbeat bill’ in reference to restrictive abortion laws sweeping the US

Pro-choice activists demonstrate in St Louis, Missouri. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP

The Guardian will no longer use the term “heartbeat bill” in reference to the restrictive abortion bans that are moving through state legislatures in the US.

Editors and reporters are encouraged to use the term “six-week abortion ban” over “fetal heartbeat bill”, unless they are quoting someone.

“We want to avoid medically inaccurate, misleading language when covering women’s reproductive rights,” the Guardian’s US editor-in-chief, John Mulholland, said. “These are arbitrary bans that don’t reflect fetal development – and the language around them is often motivated by politics, not science.”

The Guardian style guide already encourages editors to use “anti-abortion” over “pro-life” for clarity, and “pro-choice” over “pro-abortion”, since not everyone who supports a woman’s right to reproductive choice supports abortion at a personal level.

The Guardian’s updated style guide on abortion bans is in line with the view of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the largest professional organization for doctors specializing in women’s health.

ACOG, which represents 58,000 physicians, says the term “heartbeat bill” is not medically accurate.

“Pregnancy and fetal development are a continuum,” said the ACOG president, Dr Ted Anderson. “What’s interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.”

Some doctors who opposed the bans say the term was developed as political tactic to win support for the bills.

“These bills present the idea that there’s something that looks like what you or a person on the street would call a baby – a thing that’s almost ready to go for a walk,” said Dr Jen Gunter, a gynecologist in Canada and the US who runs an influential blog. “In reality, you’re talking about something that’s millimeters in size and doesn’t look anything like that.”

The Guardian’s updated style guide comes as a wave of restrictive abortion bans are sweeping the US: between 1 January and 20 May, 378 abortion restrictions were introduced across the United States. An unprecedented 40% of them have been abortion bans that prohibit terminations after a certain gestational age or for another specific reason, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Many of those measures ban abortion after about six weeks, before most women know they are pregnant.

Despite the laws, abortion is legal in all 50 US states because the bans contravene Roe v Wade, the landmark decision which legalized abortion in 1973. The laws are all expected to be challenged in court and are unlikely ever to go into effect. Supporters hope the bills will make it to the US supreme court and force a challenge to Roe.