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Her.meneuticsHer.meneutics

October 30, 2014
Her.meneutics, January, 2014

Peeking into the Womb

A Christian response to advancing ultrasound technology.
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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.

Again, ultrasound technology initially allowed doctors to safely assess the health of a growing fetus and to detect anatomical concerns. For instance, ultrasounds detected Down syndrome 85-90 percent of the time, which came as a relief to women who wanted to know if their baby had this condition but who also wanted to avoid the risk of miscarriage that comes with amniocentesis testing.

Pro-choice women used the technology to identify health conditions that might prompt them to consider abortion. At the same time, pro-life forces employed ultrasound images to convince pregnant women seeking an abortion to keep their babies. But their approach, it seems, hasn't been universally successful. A recent study of nearly 16,000 women seeking abortions in Los Angeles demonstrated that over 98 percent of women who viewed their fetus through ultrasound technology still opted for abortion. Meanwhile, the rise of ultrasound technology throughout the developing world has led to an unintended increase in sex-selective abortion resulting in dramatically skewed gender balances in China, India, and other nations.

In the 21st century, ultrasounds still offer helpful information for doctors. They can lead to or away from abortion. More than ever, this technology marks a significant part of pregnancy and has social effects on how we imagine our babies. The highly detailed 3D and now HD ultrasounds give parents the riveting experience of seeing the life that will one day enter the world and join the family. For parents preparing for the birth of a child, including those who are preparing for a child with atypical anatomy (such as a cleft lip or club foot) or atypical chromosomes (such as Down syndrome), these images might help secure an emotional bond before birth.

Ultrasound technology can be fun and exciting, but for Christians, our excitement and readiness shouldn't come from an image on a screen. Rather, as I learned the hard way, it should come from a readiness in the heart to welcome whatever child God has given us. Our daughter Penny was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth, and at first I felt anger at the ultrasound technicians who had seen her along the way. But later I realized they had done their job—Penny had no anatomical concerns that needed medical intervention. She was a healthy baby, just as the images had suggested. But I had allowed those images to suggest that our baby was under our control, created in our own image. I wish that instead I had understood our daughter as a gift coming from God for us to receive with gratitude and wonder.

Expecting parents can look to Mary, who knew before giving birth that she would be having a boy, and that his life might well be an unusual one. After overcoming her fear at the angel's news, she told him, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." Her son's life brought her great joy and great sorrow. And though most of us will never experience the depths of joy or sorrow she must have felt as Jesus' mother, she models a posture we can take as we welcome the glorious, messy, mysterious gift of life that enters the world upon the birth of each and every human being.