Peeking into the Womb
When I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child, I chatted with a friend about our upcoming ultrasound. "We find out whether we're having a boy or a girl tomorrow," I said.
She nodded with a slight smile, and responded, "And you find out if your baby is healthy tomorrow. I hope it's good news."
I later learned that my friend's previous two 20-week ultrasounds had displayed a baby with anencephaly and then a baby with a severe heart defect. Neither lived.
But for me, that ultrasound was an exciting day of discovery. Not only did we find out that we were having a girl, but we also watched her suck her thumb, marveled as we saw her swallow amniotic fluid, and gazed upon her profile—the upturned nose and full lips I later came to know and love in person. I treasured the black and white photograph they printed out for us that day. Eight years later it sits in the bottom of Penny's memory box—a reminder of the day we named her, the day we celebrated her existence, the day we didn't discover that she has Down syndrome.
Ultrasound technology was first used to look inside the womb in the 1950s. By the 1980s it had become a conventional aspect of pregnancy in America, intended to provide information about the health and growth of the baby. In particular, ultrasounds could identify neurological conditions, heart concerns, and even Down syndrome and other chromosomal anomalies. Patients could use this information in a variety of ways—whether to prepare emotionally or medically for the birth of their child or, in some cases, to procure an abortion.
But with the rise of non-invasive prenatal genetic testing, doctors and patients may begin to depend less upon ultrasound technology for this type of medical information. Advances in ultrasound technology have enabled parents to discover the sex of their child and ever-increasing detail about his or her anatomy. Within the past few months, GE has announced HD ultrasounds that not only provide a three-dimensional portrait of the child, but also use lights to reveal their baby's facial expressions and skin tone.
The medical benefits of this new technology are dubious. As Alexandra Sifflin reports for TIME, "Rubin says her team still assesses the baby using the 2D grayscale, and once they are sure the baby is healthy–and in a good position for the imaging to actually work–she flips on HDlive." In other words, the old methods are still what technicians use to assess health. The new imaging technology simply offers parents the excitement of seeing their child months before birth. This technology offers a social experience that goes beyond medical necessity. As such, it demonstrates some of the perils and promises of peeking into a mother's womb.
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