About that Atlantic piece on politics and ultrasound
posted at 1:01 pm on January 24, 2017 by John Sexton
The Atlantic has published a piece on fetal ultrasound by Moira Weigel. Apparently the original title of the piece was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person” but at some point it was changed to the far less dramatic “How Ultrasound Became Political.”
There’s a lot in this piece and some of it is interesting but the thrust is clearly conveyed by that original headline. The author doesn’t like that people see unborn babies as babies. This is a bad trend which she tries to depict as entirely the result of dishonest editing and sped-up You Tube videos.
The most telling section of the piece comes a little more than halfway through when the author struggles to describe and explain the surge of enthusiasm for ultrasound technology. She notes that this seems to be happening among regular people, i.e. people who are not necessarily political at all:
Today, the kinds of photographs that stunned the readers of Life in 1966 have become commonplace. Every rom-com involving an unplanned pregnancy—from Knocked Up and Juno to Bridget Jones’s Baby—seems to include an obligatory scene in which the reluctant mother is shown an ultrasound and decides to keep her child. Celebrity ultrasounds have become their own subgenre of tabloid “baby bump” stories.
In many ways, social media have heightened the social reality of the unborn. Expecting parents post ultrasound photos on Facebook and Instagram; they go to “Keepsake Ultrasound” chains in order to buy DVDs of 3-D and 4-D images; which in turn sustain an entire cottage industry on Etsy.
Pause here a moment. The author has just admitted that there is an entire industry devoted to ultrasound images of unborn babies. Weigel doesn’t have an explanation for that so she turns once again to the idea that people are being duped [emphasis added]:
Last year, an American couple posted a video of their sonogram fast-forwarded so that their fetus appeared to be clapping in time as they sang, “When You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” The Internet debated whether or not the video was “a hoax.” That is, they debated whether in fact this fetus understood the lyrics of a song and responded to them on cue. Were they serious? The fantasy clearly appealed: The post was viewed on YouTube nearly 12 million times. Yet it remains unclear what the popular enthusiasm for fetal images actually means.
It’s true a couple did post a sonogram video of their baby clapping while they sang. However, the woman who made the video appeared on Inside Edition after the clip went viral and explained it was their doctor who rewound the ultrasound image and played it back to match their song. There was no intent to deceive anyone.
But it’s the final line in that excerpt above which is most telling. “Yet it remains unclear what the popular enthusiasm for fetal images actually means,” Weigel writes, as if it’s some deep mystery she can’t be expected to probe. Actually, all she needed to do was listen to Jennifer Martin, the mom who sang to her baby in that video clip. Asked why she did it by Inside Edition, Martin replied, “It was so exciting to see my baby clapping and I thought ‘well, great, this is awesome!'”
It really is that simple. The reason there is enthusiasm for ultrasound videos and celebrity sonogram pics and a cottage industry on Etsy is because women (and men) are excited and happy to see their baby is alive and thriving. Please note Jennifer Martin refers to her baby at 14-weeks as “my baby” not as “the fetus.”
Women are excited about ultrasound technology not because they’ve been duped or tricked but because it has given them a window into something real and vital. They can now see their unborn baby’s face, features and movements months before they give birth. It shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone why that would be something to celebrate. The fact that it is a mystery to Moira Weigel tells us more about her than about ultrasound.