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

PCOS: Erasing the Stigma

two womenUntil I encountered health-related issues of my very own, I had never heard of PCOS. There are no PSAs, no health class curricula, and it is not uncommon for many physicians to be unfamiliar with the seemingly unrelated symptoms that can be a detriment to the life of a woman who is affected.

Irregular menstrual cycles, weight gain, sluggishness, thinning hair, depression, acne, infertility, and sometimes (but not always) cysts on the ovaries are what a woman with PCOS may have to battle on a daily basis. Not only must a woman endure the physical effects of this disorder, but also the psychological effects that come with these changes. To be clear, that is by no means a comprehensive list of symptoms.

This is polycystic ovarian syndrome, and it affects more than 5 million women in the United States alone. Continue reading