The phenomenon of medicalization saturates the entire reproductive experience, from birth control pills to in vitro fertilization to amniocentesis testing to birth. In general, Western women no longer rely on signals from their bodies to tell them that they are pregnant. Instead, as Barbara Duden notes, "contemporary pregnancies are given to women by physicians whose expertise, grounded in scientific medicine, is aggrandized through technology" (Duden 51). She writes that the milestone of feeling one's fetus move for the first time is also supplanted with an earlier "technological quickening" as one sees the fetus move on the ultrasound screen before ever feeling it move in one's body.
The dissociation of the fetus in one's body and the fetus on the screen puts pregnant women in a unique theoretical space. Many women report "bonding" with their fetus during ultrasound exams, or feeling like, having seen the fetus, they know it better. The visual ubiquity of the ultrasound has fundamentally changed the way pregnant women connect with and theorize about what is growing inside them. It is a constant reconciliation of image with feeling, technology with biology, and science with nature.
As ultrasound technology has progressed, so has the discourse surrounding it. This can be seen most clearly in an analysis of the language used by sonogram technicians during ultrasound sessions. Mitchell and Georges examined common scripts used by sonographers in North America and found a rich language of personification. Sonographers would assign emotions to the fetus (it is "shy" if turned away from the "camera"), encourage maternal-fetal bonding ("mom, wave to your little baby"), and point out features as looking like that of the parents ("he's got his daddy's nose"). When Mitchell and Georges did the same research in Greece, they failed to find this language. Thus we see that it is not just the technology that has influenced our society's views of fetal personhood, but the uniquely Western way this technology has been situated and normalized.
By taking the fetus out of the woman and putting it on the screen, the modern Western woman feels closer to it. As shown above, in addition to this primary distance (woman » screen » fetus), there is the added distance of the medical professional. The pregnant woman is not trained to interpret the white and black blobs on the screen; she needs to be instructed in what to look for. She needs the sonographer to act as a conduit, to translate the image for her. Thus the equation expands to woman » sonographer » screen » fetus. As the discursive distance between the woman and the fetus grows, the emotional distance may diminish.
The more we get to "know" the fetus and see it as a separate entity, through genetic testing and fetal imaging, the more we see a tension in pregnancy between The Invisible Woman (made permeable by technologies like ultrasound and fetal cell sorting) and The Visible Woman (always being watched and monitored). By taking the fetus out of the woman through sonographic imaging and fetal cell sorting, it is available for our society as a new object to appropriate. In shifting from a private object to a public object, the fetus needs to pass through a barrier: the woman's body. What ties the wide array of fetal images in our culture together is the omission of the female body - the body that makes fetal existence possible.
Fetal existence no longer needs to be mediated by the pregnant woman herself, because we have seen what she conceals, and seeing is a power. Meredith Michaels feels that the "pregnant body, which had heretofore served as the primary vehicle of fetal representation, has now become that which has to be got around or through, in service to Life Itself" (Michaels 119). Society is taking an increasing interest in what is happening inside the womb, and has the strengthened ability to see for itself, making the pregnant woman an obstacle.
This leads to a paradox in visibility of the pregnant woman. Ultrasound and fetal cell sorting makes her body invisible, yet the same fetal focus has led to a heightened surveillance of the pregnant body. Because prenatal testing allows us to "know" the fetus, our society is increasingly concerned with what is happening to it, sometimes at the expense of the pregnant woman. Recent years have seen a surfeit of both informal and official surveillance of the pregnant body. Informal surveillance takes the form of strangers on the street stopping to tell a pregnant woman she shouldn't be drinking coffee or smoking. Official surveillance is perpetrated by government in the form of legal action against women judged to be endangering their "babies." The former leads to "the idea of women constituting a suspicious group" (Terry 20). The latter leads to cases like that of Brenda Vaughn, a first-time offender convicted of forging checks who was sentenced to jail for the term of her pregnancy, to "protect" her fetus from her alleged (unproven) drug use (Terry 13). Our country's unique mix of prenatal technology, fetal fetishism, and moral prescriptivism has created rigid parameters for pregnant women. They must carefully and fully comply with the accepted "biomedical rituals" (Root 204), and if they fail to do this, they face punishment ranging from consternation to imprisonment.
- Duden, Barbara. Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn. Trans. Lee Hoinacki. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
- Michaels, Meredith W. "Fetal Galaxies: Some Questions About What We See." Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions. Ed. Lynn M. Morgan and Meredith W. Michaels. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
- Mitchell, Lisa M. and Eugenia Georges. "Cross Cultural Cyborgs: Greek and Canadian Women's Discourses on Fetal Ultrasound." Feminist Studies 23.2 (1997): 373-402.
- Root, Robin and C.H. Browner. "Practices of the Pregnant Self: Compliance with and Resistance to Prenatal Norms." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 25 (2001): 195-223.
- Terry, Jennifer. "The Body Invaded: Medical Surveillance of Women as Reproducers." Socialist Review 19 (1989): 13-43.