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Yes, Unborn Babies Are Alive: Ultrasounds and Embryonic Autonomy
Two big stories from yesterday: First, this piece from The Atlantic. We'll also look at this response from The Federalist.
Second, a recent study that evaluates the autonomy of embryos. We'll look at how the two stories influence one another.
First up, The Atlantic. With a headline that exclaims by fiat something many would disagree with—the claim that ultrasounds are "political," in implied contrast with "scientific"—where could author Moira Weigel go wrong?
Let's begin with this:
"Since the mid-1990s, opponents of abortion have deployed ultrasound in their attempts to restrict abortion access. Five states have enacted 'informed consent' laws, which require doctors to show their patients ultrasound images, and in some cases to describe the images, before performing an abortion. Two of those laws have been struck down by state courts. Twenty other states require a doctor to at least offer to show a woman seeking an abortion ultrasound.
"These measures are based on two assumptions: First, that an ultrasound image has an obvious meaning. Second, that any pregnant woman who sees an ultrasound will recognize this meaning. Science does not bear either assumption out."
Note that Weigel does not tell us what the obvious meaning is that we apparently hold in the first assumption. Does she mean that we assume the image represents what is in the womb, and that both doctor and patient can see the "clump of cells" and determine what looks like a person and what doesn't? Or does she mean that we assume the ultrasound will reveal personhood and simultaneously convict any woman who was considering an abortion? It isn't clear what the author thinks, though the latter seems more likely.
Let's look at an assumption Weigel seems to have smuggled into one of her later statements:
"Before ultrasound, medical care received by pregnant women had depended on their testimony, or how they described their own sensations. Ultrasound made it possible for the male doctor to evaluate the fetus without female interference. Ultrasound images carried the associations of objectivity typically accorded to the camera, and they conferred authority on the doctor who interpreted their contents. They seemed to give him immediate access to the tiny human floating inside his patient’s body. Of course, ultrasound technology has been a crucial component of prenatal care, too. Imagery obtained through ultrasound can alert doctors to potentially serious problems in a pregnancy—such as placental issues or congenital defects in the fetus."
Read that second sentence again, slowly. Now, read this from Sean Davis at The Federalist:
"Are female doctors banned from or incapable of doing an ultrasound on a pregnant mother? What about X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans? Are those marvels of modern technology that have helped to diagnose and cure countless diseases and physical maladies since their inception? Or are they evil technologies that merely enable peeping mandoctors to cast their eyes into the inner recesses of a woman’s body?"
Davis's critique of Weigel's piece continues scathingly:
"'In many ways, social media have heightened the social reality of the unborn,' Weigel writes before sneering at the women who happily post pictures of their unborn babies on Instagram or Facebook, thereby promulgating the horrific notion that the babies growing inside them are actually babies growing inside them.
"'Yet it remains unclear what the popular enthusiasm for fetal images actually means,' Weigel concludes.
"Is it really unclear? The popular enthusiasm for pictures of unborn babies is popular enthusiasm for the eventual entry into the world of those babies and the unlimited potential they represent. How jaded and bitter a person do you have to be to feign shock at people who express joy over the creation of human life?"
The question behind almost all discussions of abortion comes to down a question of autonomy of an unborn child: If the child is autonomous (or, in some framings, viable), then it ought to be afforded the same rights as any other person. If the child, however, is not viable, those rights may still be afforded, but the question opens up in the minds of many.
A recent study demonstrated that, from the moment an embryo is formed, it has organismal autonomy—that is, it grows without external control.
The study itself has ethical implications—after all, it involved growing human embryos outside of the womb—but the conclusions are clear. The author of this write-up phrases it well:
"So let’s stop deflecting. It’s time to own up to the truth. Science has already affirmed what we have long since suspected: we can call them fertilized eggs, zygotes, morulas, blastocysts, products of conception, embryos, or fetuses, but that doesn’t change reality. And that reality is this: they are autonomous humans from the very beginning."
So whether you see this reality from a scientific study on embryonic development or in an ultrasound image or in some other way, the science is in: The only differences between you and an unborn child are time, size, and developmental sophistication.
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