Ultrasounds expand our culture’s visual and moral imaginations in wonderful ways

By Dave Andrusko

I saw yet another commercial last night whose centerpiece was an ultrasound of an unborn baby. Talk about opening the eyes our hearts…

“Visualizing the Human” was written by Victor Lee Austin and appeared a while back at “First Things” online. The post is a morally imaginative way of talking about the capacity of ultrasound to expand our visual imagination.

Austin, who is now a theologian-in-residence at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, writes about his mother’s pregnancy when he was six years old. “I was allowed to feel [her “swollen belly”], and feel through it some particular bumps. ‘The baby’s kicking you,’ I was told.

Adding enormous poignancy to his account is that his sister was stillborn and his mother died in childbirth. Reflecting back a half-century later, Austin writes of his sister that “her human reality was more hypothetical than actual. I had, and have, never seen her.”

That is all changing now! Austin writes

“Every young expectant couple I know today, without exception, when they have a prenatal visit, hope they will get to see the baby. Every baby’s photo book today has a sonogram for its first picture. The first pictures, and there are often many of them, are prenatal.

“And it is changing how parents talk about their child. ‘Our little guy,’ one couple recently told me, ‘he’s as big as my thumb.’ Or: ‘Our baby would now fit in the palm of my hand.’ They delight in seeing the baby’s limb, the head, the sex, even fingers. They delight in seeing the heart and looking into its chambers.

“What is happening, largely unnoticed and far below the radar of the political debates, is that our culture’s visual imagination of the human is expansively changing. We used to picture the human life cycle as going from birth to death. But adults who are now becoming parents, along with their friends and an increasingly wider circle, no longer think it strange to consider and picture as a human being, as one of us, one whose weight is measured in ounces rather than pounds and whose size is given in terms of a portion of one’s own hand.”

But how can the near-omnipresence of images of the unborn child (everything from sonograms in albums to sonograms attached to the refrigerator to any number of advertisements) not convince every pregnant woman—and the child’s father—to allow that child to complete her journey?

When they don’t, there would likely be a severe case of cognitive dissonance at work. Having just seen the unborn child cavorting about in her mother’s womb, we know without thinking that she is a baby.

But when that recognition of the obvious runs headlong into our desire to erase the “problem”—a problem pregnancy–there is a tension. We slip into avoidance, rationalization, and loopy logic to resolve that tension caused by the discrepancy. (Worth noting, alas, is that this often entails the need to persuade others to validate our decision.)

Austin’s point is that once upon a time “People knew, as an intellectual matter, that there was a child inside her womb. But it was nigh impossible to visualize that child.”

Now it is nigh on impossible not to visualize the child. And the transformational power of that “aha” moment can only grow as more and more states make it possible for mothers in a crisis to see their unborn child.

No wonder Planned Parenthood and its ilk fear and loath ultrasounds.