How Ultrasound Became Political

How Ultrasound Became Political
The technology has been used to create sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus.
Jan 24 2017

One of the first measures that Republicans in the 115th Congress proposed was the “Heartbeat Protection Act.” On January 11, a group led by Steve King of Iowa introduced a bill that would require doctors nationwide to “check for a fetal heartbeat” before performing an abortion, and prohibit them from completing the procedure if they found one. In December, Republicans in the Ohio state legislature put forth a similar measure. Governor John Kasich vetoed it, observing that such a law would almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional, but approved a 20-week abortion ban.

Opponents of the heartbeat bills have pointed out that they would eliminate abortion rights almost entirely—making the procedure illegal around four weeks after fertilization, before many women realize that they are pregnant. These measures raise even more elementary questions: What is a fetal heartbeat? And why does it matter?

The idea would have been unthinkable before the advent of a technology developed in 1976: real-time ultrasound. At six weeks, the “heartbeat” is not audible; it is visible, a flickering that takes place between 120 and 160 times per minute on a black-and-white playback screen. As cardiac cells develop, they begin to send electrical pulses that cause their neighbors to contract. Scientists can observe the same effect if they culture cells in a petri dish.

Doctors do not even call this rapidly dividing cell mass a “fetus” until nine weeks into pregnancy.* Yet, the current debate shows how effectively politicians have used visual technology to redefine what counts as “life.”

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.

* * *

The origins of fetal ultrasound lie in stealth warfare. Ultrasound technology was first developed to scan vast spaces, rather than telescope in on infinitesimal cell masses. In the 1880s, the French scientists Pierre and Jacques Curie discovered that they could produce sound waves with frequencies of millions of cycles per second by applying electricity to quartz crystals. Following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, several scientists and mathematicians experimented with these “ultrasound” signals to determine the presence of icebergs underwater.

However, the real push came during World War I, when German submarines blockaded the Atlantic. The French, British, and American navies rushed to develop devices that could surveil U-Boats. The first known sinking of a submarine detected by hydrophone took place in the Atlantic in April 1916. During World War II, the Allied forces continued to dump resources into improving sonar capabilities.



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