How Technology Transformed the Fetus Into a 'Pre-Born' Person

Image via AP.
Image via AP.

At The Atlantic, Moira Weigel has a thoughtful essay about the heartbeat bills and the politics of the ultrasounds. The so-called heartbeat bill, which has been introduced on the federal level as well as in numerous states, would effectively make abortion illegal at the moment a fetal heartbeat could be detected, at roughly five weeks of gestation. Those bills, which have been haunting state houses for awhile but have become increasingly popular, rely solely on ultrasound technology which, as Weigel points out, raises important questions like, “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.”


Indeed, as Weigel argues, the heartbeat bills, as well as the handful of laws that require doctors to show or describe ultrasound images to women seeking an abortion, rely on a cultural understanding of the image generated by the technology rather than a scientific understanding of life.

Though ultrasound technology pre-dates its use during prenatal care (Weigel notes that it began as military technology), it became associated with pregnancy in the 1960s. The ultrasound, like most scientific imagery, is one of making the invisible visible and, prior to its invention, doctors relied on women’s descriptions of pregnancy. The ultrasound, Weigel writes, “made it possible for the male doctor to evaluate the fetus without female interference.”

By the 1980s, the ultrasound became a standard during prenatal care, used to glean a range of information—from sex to fetal anomalies. Set aside, however, was the pregnant woman; the ultrasound refocused pregnancy to a fuzzy image of a fetus and though a woman’s body is quite literally present in the resulting image, it’s simultaneously removed. The resulting image, the one shared often shared on social media, focuses on the fetus, the pregnant woman is reduced to shadowy image and photographic afterthought. “In 1991, the feminist writer Susan Bordo would observe that ultrasound images had played a key role in reducing the status of mothers to ‘fetal incubators,’” Weigel writes.

The piece is an interesting exploration on how the fetal image is constructed and its increasingly important role. Without the intervention of technologies like the ultrasound—which has an important role in maternal and prenatal health—the idea of a heartbeat bill would be impossible. But the determination of life, when it begins and when it’s viable, has always relied on technologies. Prior to the nineteenth century, the quickening (when a woman feels fetal movement), which occurs between fourteen and twenty weeks, would have been the beginning of a pregnancy. Indeed, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that American law began to argue that fetal life began before the quickening.

Beyond the heartbeat bills, other reproductive technologies have also been used by anti-abortion groups to erode abortion rights. While Ohio Governor John Kasich recently vetoed a heartbeat bill, he signed a 20-week restriction on the procedure. Anti-abortion activists have also used the argument of technology advances to argue for that restriction, pointing out that advances in care for preterm infants means that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe that 24-weeks was the earliest an infant could survive outside of the womb, is no longer applicable.


Weigel’s piece is worth a close read, particularly as we’ll see more and more abortion restrictions based on motivated readings of prenatal technologies. It’s an ironic reminder that medical technologies built and used to improve pregnancy and inform women of their options can simultaneously be used to legislate choice into oblivion.


At five weeks of gestation? How many women even realise they are pregnant at that limit?