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The Effect of Ultrasound on the Perception of Personhood and Abortion
1. Since the mid 1950s, the ultrasound machine has been an important piece of equipment in the office of an OBGYN. This machine allows the expecting mother to get the first live look at the life that is growing inside of her. However, as much joy as the ultrasound has brought, it has also been the center of serious political debates. It has been used to call into question whether the fetus inside a woman is considered a person or not. The use of this machine to aid political arguments has shown that images are powerful enough to change one’s perception of personhood.
The study of ultrasonic waves goes all the way back to 1794 when Larrazo Spallanzani studied how bats use echo location in order to navigate their way through the night (UltrasoundSchoolsinfo). This sort of research led the way for future use as ultrasound technology began to develop overtime. It saw use in the military as it was used for sonar. The sound would be projected into the bottom of the ocean and then the different speeds in which it came back would show up in object outlines (Sturken and Cartwright 365). This technology was put to use in the medical field in 1958 (UltrasoundSchoolsinfo). The fact that women could actually see their babies living inside them was revolutionary. The ultrasound, like the X-Ray, is a way to see into a person’s body. However, the ultrasound carries so much more meaning and is rather culturally significant. Women use the images from the ultrasound and show all of their friends and maybe even put it on the fridge. They want to publically display the fact that they have their child living inside of them rather than it just being another medical record to put in a file (Sturken and Cartwright 367).
Although for most mothers this idea is significant and meaningful, for those with unplanned pregnancies it could be a way to lead women away from aborting their pregnancy. Abortion is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, however, it is up to the parents and represents women’s choice. Rosalind Pethesky said, “Ironically, while feminists thought the right to abortion meant their ‘ right to privacy,’ to personal control over their bodies with out state inference, the right wing has used anti-abortion politics to reassert its own view of ‘privacy’” (New Right 210). The use of the ultrasound has changed the way that pregnancies are viewed because they are the only visual representation of the fetus. Those who are Pro-life have advocated for their use as a way to scare women out of getting abortions. Back in 2012 in the state of Virginia the state legislation attempted to pass as law that required women seeking abortion to undergo an ultrasound (Slate). For one the state was trying to use its power to violate women with a vaginal ultrasound but they were also attempting shame or scare women out of their own choices. A proposed provision of the law was that if a woman did not decide to undergo the ultrasound then it would be put into her medical records (Slate). This is still further shaming the woman because it his making her decision knowledge for all future doctors she may have. Having a record of a procedure that someone elected not to have does not make a lot of sense.
According to Petchesky, “the political attack on abortion rights moved further into the terrain of mass culture and imagery” (Fetal Images 263). She further stated that the prolife movement has turned its angle of attack by trying to dictate the symbolism of fetuses “dead or alive” (Fetal Images 263). The idea is to position fetuses to be seen as people so that the fetuses could gain rights. The problem there is that the women, in turn, have their rights limited. The best example of the use of ultrasound to try to push a political agenda is the film The Silent Scream. In the film a doctor shows ultrasound footage of a fetus being aborted. The fetus seems to be seriously harmed and “in pain” during the procedure. In the film the doctor shows a fetus in a jar and says “sure looks like a baby”. This is labeling the fetus as something that people call a child after it is born. It is being positioned as a person instead of a fetus. Information came out later that the doctor in the film was giving false gestational ages for the fetuses being shown (Sturken and Cartwright 369). The purpose for this was to make earlier fetuses appear is if they develop a lot sooner than they actually do. The goal of pro-life individuals is for fetuses, no matter how far along, to be viewed as people. Showing that fetuses in early stages already exhibit human characteristics is doing just that.
The ultrasound has always been seen as a picture of what is to come. The use of ultrasound in the political arena shows that images can be interpreted in different ways. One may look at an ultrasound and say it is a person with rights and another may say that it is simply a fetus. The ultrasound has the power to bring unbelievable joy as well as be used to push ideals.