September 12, 2003


Now, not even the womb is a private place (Anne Karpf, September 13, 2003, The Guardian)

Step aside, Mona Lisa. Your chiaroscuro smile can't compete with that of a 32-week-old baby, captured for the first time on ultrasound.

The suggestion of mirth so exquisitely evoked by Leonardo has now been recorded, thanks to 3D and 4D scanning techniques, prenatally. So why do I find these photos of smiling foetuses deeply disquieting?

It has nothing to do with the ethical debate, already cranking up, between those who see this as a brilliant technological advance enabling earlier surgical correction of deformities, and the anti-abortion lobby, intoxicated with evidence of a foetus's humanity.

What disturbs me is something different - the extension of the medical gaze back ever earlier in the human journey. Hitherto, the unborn baby existed as a cluster of possibilities, limited only by the parental imagination. Of course there were those who wanted to know its sex, and others who brandished their unborn baby's grainy ultrasound pix like holiday photos. But despite the normalisation of ultrasound and the growth of antenatal surveillance and intervention, the womb - for most of us - has remained a private place. [...]

I'm not a Luddite or much given to mysticism, but I find these photos a rude invasion into a mysterious, and in some sense sacred, space, and am relieved they didn't exist when I was pregnant.

Ms Karpf is correct that the womb should be a sacred place, but contrast that view with the one expressed in another essay from the Guardian.

New hi-tech scans show babies smiling and crying before birth (James Meikle, September 13, 2003, The Guardian)

Images published for the first time yesterday seem to suggest that unborn babies can smile, blink and cry weeks before they leave the womb.

The pictures of foetuses about 26 weeks after conception have been captured by state-of-the-art scanning equipment now being employed at some clinics and teaching hospitals.

Experts can now debate whether this apparent grin reflects an emotional response or is a simple physical reaction, helping prepare baby for the outside world.

The smile might appear at 26 weeks development, but the new techniques clearly show limb movements at eight weeks, the foetus leaping, turning and "jumping" at 11-12 weeks, intricate movement of fingers at 15 weeks and yawning at 20 weeks.

Obstetrician Stuart Campbell, who has been using the Austrian-developed equipment at the private Create Health Clinic, London, for two years, said: "It is remarkable that a newborn baby does not smile for about six weeks after birth. But before birth, most babies smile frequently. This may indicate the baby's trouble-free existence in the womb and the relatively traumatic first few weeks after birth when the baby is reacting to a strange environment." [...]

Prof Campbell said scanner techniques were improving. "Some mothers say: 'I feel I am almost cheating. I am enjoying my baby before it is born.'

"The bond between parents and baby is enormous. The reaction is overwhelming especially with fathers, who rarely get involved. Before they sat in the corner. Now they really show emotion. I enjoy scanning and looking at babies. It is so informative about babies and behaviour. Every scan is an adventure."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 12, 2003 10:23 PM

> the ethical debate, already cranking up, between
> those who see this as a brilliant technological
> advance enabling earlier surgical correction of
> deformities, the anti-abortion lobby, intoxicated
> with evidence of a foetus's humanity.

Huh? The pro-life movement is against intrauterine surgery? Who knew????? After all, it's not as if abortion opponents view the unborn as people or anything...

Posted by: Kirk Parker at September 13, 2003 1:45 AM

That Julie Burchill essay, which I've read before, is among the more horrifying things I read in a long time. It inclines me toward Robert George's provoked by comments from the late Paul Hill, recently executed in Florida for killing an abortion doctor.

I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go so far as to support mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even nonjudgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity-not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately pro-choice.

Posted by: Paul Cella at September 13, 2003 8:55 AM