Oh the Humanity!

A new phenomenon has been sweeping American in the past year. Boutique ultrasound centers, with names like Fetal Fotos or Womb's Window, have sprung up across America—region>, offering parents pictures of their unborn babies. These commercial ultrasound shops utilize a newer, high—density 3—D technology that highlights an unborn baby's features —— chubby cheeks, grimaces, thumb—sucking —— much more clearly than conventional ultrasound.


The FDA is reported to be considering regulatory action of some kind against the commercial ultrasound studios, and disapproves of non—medical use of ultrasound.  Although ultrasound has been around for twenty years, and has proved remarkably benign technology, there is some concern that higher intensity forms of ultrasound energy may lead to unforeseen problems at a future time. Any technology is, of course, subject to similar predictions of potential doom from unforeseen consequences. Medical issues, such as a fetal death or deformity, may come to light during the scans, and these problems may not be handled very well in a commercial setting.


All that being said, the commercial ultrasound scans are performed by persons trained in medical ultrasound, and are usually read by physicians. The bonding experience of parents undergoing the scans is quite remarkable.  Given the safety record of ultrasound thus far, I think a bill such as one proposed by California Assemblyman Alan Nakanashi strikes the proper balance. It requires commercial ultrasound centers to inform their clients that the FDA does not approve of non—medical ultrasounds, but does not prohibit them.


If commercial high definition ultrasound scans are allowed by the FDA to continue to be marketed widely to prospective parents, prices will inevitably fall and the photos will become commonplace. The national debate over abortion cannot help but be affected. The proud parents—to—be are all but certain to share their prized photos with others, pointing out a suspected resemblance to Mom, Dad, or Uncle Harry. Facial expressions, thumb—sucking, and other behavior common to fetuses and babies alike, are certain to the cause of oohs and ahhs from friends, colleagues at the office, and relatives.


Eventually, everyone —— purchaser of the photos or not —— is certain to see such photos, and notice that the descriptor 'human being' is far more appropriate to the subject of the photos than 'fetal tissue mass.'


Sooner or later, every woman who might consider an abortion will know the general visual characteristics of the baby who lives within her. It will become difficult or even impossible to think of an abortion as a 'simple procedure' akin to removing a tumor or other unwanted tissue mass.


High definition ultrasound equipment has already fallen significantly in price. From an initial $900,000 or so price tag, they are now available for about $100,000. Presumably, the price reductions will continue, as computing power and sensor technology follow the same laws of economics as other high technology sectors. Eventually, Pro—Life groups should be able to afford to purchase and use them, when counseling women considering abortions.


Today, Planned Parenthood v Ashcroft, the government's defense of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act , begins to make it way through the judicial system in three American cities. The U.S.—region> is unique in the developed world in the unregulated, casual and brutal manner in which we allow second and third trimester babies to be aborted. If the Partial Birth Abortion Ban is upheld, this will prohibit only one form of late abortion.


In the future, the entire debate may be regarded in the same way Nineteenth Century judicial rulings upholding slavery, such as the Dred Scott Decision, are today. Cognizant of the obvious humanity of the life within the womb, future generations will ask how their ancestors ever tolerated such barbarity.  If nothing else, high definition in utero images vividly bring the humanity of the unborn into the light.


Mary L.Davenport, M.D., is an obstetrician—gynecologist in private practice in El Sobrante,California