How the Technology of 3D Ultrasound Radically Transformed Abortion Debate – Opinion

When the 1973 Roe v Wade decision was issued by the United States Supreme Court, they didn’t have much knowledge about pregnancy or fetuses. No one did—the technology simply wasn’t there.

The advancements in almost every area of our lives have been rapid since then. There has been the creation of personal computers and cellphones equipped with powerful microchips that rival those on the Apollo Space 11 missions. Cars can now drive themselves. The study of human fetuses has seen this innovation at its greatest.

These advancements have raised the stakes in the debate about abortion and renewed the energy of the pro-life cause.

In the middle-to-late 1970s, ultrasound was popular and was used for years as a prenatal screening method. Although it was a profound development, anyone who’s ever seen one remembers the doctor pointing at a blob on the screen and saying, “look it’s a boy, you see that, right?” (All you could do was nod, though truthfully you saw nothing more than an indistinct blur of black and white.)

In the late nineties, 3D and 4D ultrasound became prominent, and this was a game-changer because you could actually see the baby’s face, watch its movements, even see it smile or suck its thumb. While pro-life legislators quickly began to write laws that required women to have ultrasounds prior to having an abortion, abortion supporters were furious and the debate continues to this day.

My baby girl in her womb. These facial features, which she still displays many years later, are easily identifiable. Photo credit: Bob Hoge. Used with permission.

In 1973, the justices didn’t know that there was so much happening in the womb at the time of pregnancy. Below is a condensed WebMD slideshow that covers each level of our current knowledge on fetal growth (emphasis mine).

  • The process of fertilization, also known as conception, is when a egg’s sperm touches and passes through an egg. Within three days, the fertilized egg starts to split into many cells. Then it passes through the fallopian tubes into the uterus and attaches with the uterine walls.
  • Four weeks after birth, the baby begins to develop the structures that will become its neck and face. Organ formation is underway. Positive results from a home pregnancy test could be obtained. At just over half an inch, the baby’s eyes and ears have begun to open by week 8. Its arms are and legs are fully formed.
  • At 12 weeks old, the baby begins to move and begin to have sex. At the sixteenth week it is able to blink and its heart has fully formed. It also has fingerprints. By week 20, it can suck its thumb, yawn and stretch.
  • The baby is approximately 2 pounds and 6 ounces at 28 weeks. He or she also changes positions frequently. This is the point where you might have to prematurely deliver your baby. The baby could survive.
  • The baby will gain over half of its birth weight within 32 weeks. Baby will rapidly grow and lose half of his birth weight by the time he is born. This happens around week 40.

At various points during its development, a fetus will learn to respond to touch and taste, smile, suck its thumb, hear sounds, distinguish voices—even see faces outside the mother’s womb.

For a glimpse into how far we have come in our understanding, back in 1973 the dominant opinion was that foetuses were not alive. couldn’t even feel painIt seems preposterous to draw such a conclusion. (In fact, they used to perform in-utero surgery on fetuses—without anesthesia.)

One thing is certain—the judges then did not know what we know now.

Many current Supreme Court justices are parents to young children. They would have likely seen scans of 3-4D of their own babies before giving birth. The new science may have had an impact on the minds of some who voted to repeal Roe. We will never know. We can tell with absolute certainty that both sides were enflamed by technological advancements, and the passions are stronger than ever.

I’ll leave you with a video from “Naked Science,” which originally aired on the National Geographic Channel and has almost 13 million views, depicting the journey in the womb. In 1973, no one would have thought of anything like this.

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