Picturing a Beating Heart

Lori Borgman | Contributing Writer | Monday, January 12, 2009

Picturing a Beating Heart


January 21, 2009

On my birthday this past fall, I received an e-mail from our son and his wife with the subject line HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Inside the e-mail was an ultrasound image of a 12-week-old fetus wearing a bright red and yellow party hat that screamed Happy Birthday. The ultrasound was courtesy of an obstetrician’s office; the party hat was courtesy of Photoshop.

In the digital age, this is how a woman receives notice she is going to become a grandmother. (Well, that and they dropped by with their dog which was wearing a shirt that said, “I’m the Big Brother.”)

Our children’s baby books all begin with the inky little footprints taken in the nursery shortly after they were born. Baby books these days begin with ultrasounds done before the babies were ever born.

This remarkable technology has made inroads into the animal kingdom as well. This month the National Geographic Channel aired “In the Womb: Dogs” and “In the Womb: Cats.” Using 4-D imaging, they tracked development of a wolf, three breeds of dogs, a lion embryo and a kitten embryo. The cats can be seen running in place and stretching in the womb.

One cannot miss the irony of two documentaries on the wonder of life inside the womb debuting in January, the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The abortion battle has been going on for nearly four decades now. Recently invited to a luncheon attended by people who have been deeply involved in the pro-life movement since the ‘70s, I couldn’t help but notice conversation was punctuated with questions like, “Is she still alive?” or “Is he well?” There is speculation, which follows every general election, that the debate itself is aging and dying.

Yet election polling by the Pew Research Group found younger people, who tend to be more liberal than their parents or grandparents on many issues, are more conservative than their older counterparts when it comes to abortion.  Some analysts say the reason is because the pro-life side of the argument is couched in terms of “right to life,” and young people are all about rights.

But surely part of the leaning is due to technology. In the early days following Roe v. Wade, an argument was floated that the ethics of abortion were inconsequential because it wasn’t really a baby. Even as someone who was unsettled on the issue back then, I always wondered, if it wasn’t a baby, what was it?

A semi-truck? A hippo? I later learned it that it would feel like such things during labor and delivery, but it was, in fact, a human being. And now technology answers the question of life sharply, definitively and in living color.

Here’s another thing I have noticed about the next generation. Because they are visual, early imaging causes them to form far more personal attachments with the baby while it is still in the womb. Many young couples are naming their babies before they are born, sharing the names with family and friends and referring to the pre-born baby by name.

It would be one thing to talk about aborting one’s fetus, but quite another to talk about aborting a Riley, Jackson or Grace.

Ultrasound imaging may be changing hearts in a way that the protests, shouting and placards never could. A picture really is worth a thousand words, or in some cases, a thousand lives.



Lori Borgman is author of "I Was a Better Mother Before I Had Kids," "Pass the Faith, Please" and "All Stressed Up and No Place To Go." Her weekly column, distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service, covers family life issues, values and contemporary culture with insight and a touch of humor.

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