this article in The Atlantic which claims ultrasounds lack obvious meaning, ponders whether a heartbeat counts if the heart isn’t fully formed, and suggests that the fetal appearance of being a “baby” is illusion.
[UPDATE: The Atlantic story has been edited to tone down its anti-science claims including the suggestion there is “no heart to speak of” in a 6 week fetus. You can read about that here
SECOND UPDATE: the corrections keep coming. At some point the correction should be, wow we shouldn’t have published this]
You know, I feel conflicted about ultrasounds too. You won’t find many people that view them with more resentment and suspicion than myself. Ushered into that quiet, dim room with the screen mounted high on the wall across from the table, my heart begins to beat fast, my lungs to tighten. Usually as the nurse prepares her wand and gel I warn her that this patient may be unpredictably emotional, be prepared.
You see, I know just how treacherous this technology can be, luring you in with the pretty pictures and lifetime movie expectations. Posting those great profile shots all over facebook, ultrasound lulls you into a sense of security and joyous excitement. And then it betrays you with the monstrous, pitiless cruelty.
I sure do wish ultrasound information didn’t have an “obvious meaning”. I tried to pretend that the blank space in every heart beat, oh you’ll forgive me the lazy description I’m sure, tried to pretend it didn’t mean what it meant. And what it meant was your son is dying. My son because I could see that undeniable scientific fact on the screen too. Dying because the blood wasn’t flowing from me to him in a beautiful smooth uninterrupted line with every, there’s that troublesome word again, heartbeat. None of this was debatable.
Three times in my life I’ve wanted to argue with the ultrasound. Once as I watched my son fight. Once two weeks later when I saw that “obvious meaning”: the terrible motionlessness of a child who had lost his battle. And once more when the same fate befell another son a year later. I recognized that all too familiar obvious meaning immediately. But you can’t debate the machine. You can’t convince that cold emotionless tool to do anything but what it was designed to do: tell the scientific truth. I’d love it to be more complicated but it isn’t. Hearts beat, children live, and then they die and neither fact can be changed by semantics.
Maybe it is possible to argue your way out of seeing the flutter on that screen as an actual heart beat of an actual person. I’ll tell you what you can’t argue with. The moment it’s gone. The flutter stops. The thump thump sound is replaces by the most palpable of all silences. And you know what I knew? I knew he was dead. Nobody argues death. Nobody says, oh don’t worry, that baby isn’t really dead. But if he’s dead what was he the day before, the moment before that dreadful stillness fell. If the absence means death don’t tell me the presence was some strange in between.
So to me ultrasound is a sickening thief. It shows you your healthy baby one day and the next leaves you with nothing but a gravestone and a blue box in the closet with a pregnancy test inside along with a crumpled printout didn’t realize would be the last photograph of your child while he lived. LIVED. LIVED I want to scream.
But poor ultrasound isn’t to blame. It’s just a tool. A window to the other side of the womb. And ultrasounds have been used both to save and to terminate pregnancies. Abby Johnson famously wrote of her experience witnessing an ultrasound guided abortion in her book Unplanned. So the ultrasound is the tool of the abortionist as much as of the perinatologist or the prolife advocate. It can’t lie, it cannot cure or harm, it can only watch. What it tells us may make us very uncomfortable. Life might be easier and decisions less fraught if ultrasound would just mercifully soften its glare. So go ahead. Debate abortion. But don’t debate with ultrasound. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t care what we want to hear. That damn machine only tells you what is.