Five Decades of “Semiotic” Fetal Imagery in the US: Part 2

This is the second of two articles on the history fetal imagery in the United States. The first post can be found here.

The conflation of fetal rights and human rights extended into the 1990s and continued to obscure the rights of pregnant people. Liberals assembled around the rhetoric of “safe, legal, rare” to accommodate what had become a wary mainstream opinion on abortion rights. Moreover, this dynamic affected people who weren’t pregnant and extended to an even earlier gestational age. 

In 2001, George W. Bush signed an executive order that banned research on fetal stem-cells citing his belief in preserving human life, which in this case referred to embryos. “I … believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator,” Bush declared in a nationally televised speech. “I worry about a culture that devalues life and believe as your President I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”

Meanwhile, the interplay between politics and imagery continued with more widespread use of Internet use in the early 2000s. Web 2.0, which  included websites like Myspace, Facebook, as well as women-focused blogging websites such as Blogger, gave pregnant people the opportunity to share their experiences of pregnancy and birth with a broader audience for the first time. Rather than flashing doctors’-office ultrasound photos to one friend or family member at a time, women could now share them with broader social networks in the form of popular “mommy blogs.” Plenty of users have live-blogged their or their partner’s pregnancy and even birth (Roberts 114). 

These technologies further divorced ultrasound images from the doctor’s office and political ads and opened the opportunity to mediate fetal images that had heretofore been inaccessible outside a medical or political context. Yet, while in some ways, they expanded the semiotic possibilities of ultrasound photos, the rhetorical constraints of a society preoccupied with a well-entrenched association of fetuses with children limited the rhetorical possibilities of fetal imagery. 

The emergence of the (still largely unregulated) industry of 3D/4D ultrasounds around this time has inspired interest on the possibility of more intense ultrasound bonding, an assumption political and commercial aspects. It is also possible that what Roberts refers to as the “technofetus” “prompts women to reevaluate their somatic experiences of pregnancy, to imagine the cause of the sensations they feel differently and even to explain them to others differently” (Roberts 134). Widespread sharing of ever-clearer ultrasound photos has led to earlier gendering of fetuses, a harsher reifying of the nuclear family as it is perceived online (e.g. family bloggers), and the further commodification of pregnancy and parenthood (imagine gendered tailored ads and algorithm-dictated Instagram Explore pages). 

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A banner advertising a commercial ultrasound “boutique” in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by the author)

While they now extend beyond medicine, the scripts for describing pregnancy remain limited. 

Moreover, the inaccurate foundations of the anti-abortion movement continues to grow. Schoen, Dubow, and other scholars agree that the “redefinition of a the fetus as a baby” led to the 2007 US Supreme Court Decision Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the 2003 Supreme Court ban on intact dilation and evacuation (D&E). (The procedure, which accounts for 0.2  percent of all abortions performed in the United States, is sometimes referred to by anti-abortion activists as a “partial-birth abortion.”) (Schoen 20).

This history reminds us that the “visualized fetus” is “highly mobile beyond the clinic” and that there is no “objective fetus to observe,” no matter how realistic the images seem; they both involve and exceed the medical (Roberts 131). Many Americans encounter images of fetuses fairly often, on billboards, Instagram feeds, and campaign ads. The takeoff of microblogging sites like Instagram in the 2010s and the introduction of 3D/4D ultrasounds, have extended the capabilities of earlier blogs and present further challenges for processing them. 

As scholars remind us, these readings are mutually constituted and cannot be separated from the many cultural and political crises of our time. In 2019, these include widespread opioid addiction and overdose, the separation of immigrant families, an increasing wealth gap, “heartbeat bills,” and much more. All of these forces shape how we view fetuses, children, as well as the people who gestate and parent them. 

Bibliography

Dubow, Sara. Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Roberts, Julie. The Visualized Foetus: A Cultural and Political Analysis of Ultrasound Imagery, Abingdon, Routledge, 2012.

Schoen, Johanna. Abortion After Roe: Abortion after Legalization, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Taylor, Janelle. The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram: Technology, Consumption, and the Politics of Reproduction, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2008. 

“President Discusses Stem Cell Research,” George W. Bush White House archives.

Further reading:

Leaver, T., & Highfield, T. “Visualising the ends of identity: Pre-birth and post-death on Instagram.” Information, Communication & Society, 21, 1, November 2016, 1–16.

Tiidenberg, Katrin and Nancy K. Baym. “Learn It, Buy It, Work It: Intensive Pregnancy on Instagram.” Social Media and Society, 3, 1, January-March, 2017, 1-13.

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