Sound Science and Unsound Ideology: Sixty Years of Obstetric Ultrasound

Ultrasound image used in an anti-abortion billboard in Ireland, 2012. Photo: The Vagenda

For decades now, ultrasound technology has been a fixture in the journey from pregnancy to parenthood. It has also become a prized weapon among abortion opponents in the battle over reproductive rights.

Ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to render images of a developing fetus, had its beginning 60 years ago this week, with the publication of a seminal paper in the British medical journal The Lancet. The development of the technology has a colorful history, one involving flying mammals, German submarines, a desert-dwelling inventor, and countless medical professionals who saw a range of patient care possibilities.


Ultrasound is a powerful tool, which can benefit patients or be used as a cudgel by abortion opponents.


But that colorful history belies the drab and fuzzy appearance of most ultrasounds. That limitation, though, has never stopped it from taking on enormous significance. When the technology was first developed, it gave obstetricians an unprecedented ability to survey fetal development, making it one of the most important advances in their field during the latter half of the 20th century.

By the same token, ultrasound has not only been a valuable medical tool but also a powerful storytelling tool. Today, it is often put to use four or more times before a patient’s due date. While the FDA and other authorities advise against ultrasounds that aren’t medically necessary — recommending just two for a low-risk pregnancy — many patients opt for additional, elective ultrasounds for the sake of having keepsake images. Posting those images online has become a popular way to share their news with family and friends. Continue reading

September 9: Fetal Alcohol Awareness Day

September 9 is Fetal Alcohol Awareness Day. At 9 a.m. the bells of the St. Augustine Cathedral in downtown Tucson will ring, so we can remember on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month not to drink alcohol during the nine months of pregnancy.


Fetal alcohol syndrome is entirely preventable.


I became aware of fetal alcohol syndrome the way many parents do — by dealing with a child affected by a mother’s drinking while pregnant. I had to learn about it to parent my son, who had come to me when he was 7 years old, and who, in his teens, had regressed in his emotional and cognitive functioning. I needed to understand the outbursts that resulted in holes punched or kicked in the walls; broken mirrors, broken windows, broken china; stolen jewelry, my winter jacket that I saw walking down the street worn by his friend, who had given money for it; the daily swearing and the inability to understand that his behavior had consequences.

What is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading cause of IQ scores below 70 in this country (though most people with FAS have normal intelligence), and is entirely preventable. You have probably seen ads talking about the importance of not drinking during pregnancy. But it is not only women of childbearing age who need to be educated. Doctors, especially ob/gyns and pediatricians, teachers, and social workers — everyone who works with children, in fact — need to learn about the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol. Also judges, probation officers, and others working in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems need to be educated; most of them have quite a bit of contact with the victims of fetal alcohol exposure, whether diagnosed or not. Continue reading