On April 30, 1965, Life published another cover story that would become iconic: “The Drama of Life Before Birth” presented a series of dramatic color photographs by the Swedish photojournalist, Lennart Nilsson. Annotations detailed the developmental stages of an embryo from fertilization to 28 weeks. One page showed a fetus enclosed, forehead straining against the amniotic sac; another, showed a fetus suspended in a dark void surrounded by pinpoints of light resembling stars. Nilsson called it “spaceman embryo.” The following year, Nilsson published a book on embryology for expecting couples, A Child Is Born. It quickly became an international bestseller.
These images produced a new and unprecedented vision of human development. 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.
Later, Nilsson admitted that he staged his photographs using aborted material; this was how he had been able to manipulate the position and lighting of the embryos to such dramatic effect. But the image of the fetus as a tiny “spaceman” remained lodged in the popular consciousness. Stanley Kubrick helped make it iconic with his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which concludes with a sequence featuring a “Star Child” floating through space, a direct citation of Nilsson’s photographs.
Critics have offered varying interpretations of the sequence. It is an allegory about how technology will destroy the human race; it is an allegory about how we will be reborn through technology. What was clear, as the Star Child floated in its tiny, incandescent amniotic sac, was the suggestion that he floated in a void. The framing of the ultrasound image was notable for what it excluded: the woman. In order to make the fetus visible, it made her disappear.
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Real-time ultrasound became a standard part of prenatal treatment in the early 1980s. Almost as soon as it did, opponents of abortion enlisted it in their cause. It became an article of faith that women would respond to seeing ultrasound images by “recognizing” that the fetus gestating inside them was a “baby”—and, by extension, that abortion would be murder.
In 1983, the doctors John C. Fletcher and Mark I. Evans published an article in The New England Journal of Medicine on “Maternal Bonding in Early Fetal Ultrasound Examinations.” Fletcher and Evans recounted the stories of several women who decided to forego abortions after having ultrasounds. One, who had been beaten by her partner, and then discovered during her medical examination that she was pregnant, was shown an ultrasound and asked how she felt. She told the researchers, “It certainly makes you think twice about abortion! I feel that it is human. It belongs to me. I couldn’t have an abortion now.” In a second case, an expecting mother decided to carry her pregnancy to term, even though, the fetus was at high risk for a genetic disorder that would cause severe hormonal problems: “I am going all the way with this baby. I believe that it is human.”