The Politics of Ultrasound Scans

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In January 2017, Republicans in the US Congress introduced the “Heartbeat Protection Act,” which proposed that any doctor performing an abortion must check for a heartbeat beforehand. As Moira Weigel wrote in the Atlantic, “Opponents of the heartbeat bills have pointed out that they would eliminate abortion rights almost entirely—making the procedure illegal around four weeks after fertilization, before many women realize that they are pregnant.” Furthermore, she wrote, “These measures raise even more elementary questions: What is a fetal heartbeat? And why does it matter?” Weigel described how politicians have politicized ultrasound technology in attempts to create a new definition of a living human being.

Since the mid-1960s, ultrasound technology has been used to monitor the development of a fetus in the mother’s womb. (Weigel noted that until nine weeks into pregnancy, doctors do not call the rapidly dividing cell mass a “fetus.”) In 1965, Life magazine published a pair of cover stories—“A Sonar ‘Look’ at an Unborn Baby” and “The Drama of Life before Birth”—that brought ultrasound technology to the public’s attention. “These images,” Weigel reported, “produced a new and unprecedented vision of human development.” In 1976, ultrasound technology advanced to allow real-time tracking. This breakthrough, Weigel wrote, allowed politicians to effectively use the new, visual technology to “redefine what counts as ‘life.’”

In the 1980s, real-time ultrasound became a standard aspect of prenatal care. As Weigel described, abortion opponents believed that mothers “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.” From medical journals that published accounts of mothers choosing not to undergo abortions after ultrasound scans to, to the documentary film The Silent Scream, which aired repeatedly on television, ultrasound images played a key role in reducing mothers to the status of “fetal incubators,” according to feminist author Susan Bordo.

Weigel concluded, “New ‘informed consent’ laws and the Congressional ‘heartbeat bill’ follow the same logic that The Silent Scream did. Their sponsors act as if ultrasound images ‘prove’ that a fetus is equivalent to a ‘baby,’ and that pregnant women only have to be shown ultrasound images in order to draw the same conclusion. But the ‘heartbeat’ made visible via ultrasound does not actually demonstrate any decisive change of state in the cell mass that might become a fetus… Like many other uses of this technology across history, The Heartbeat Protection Act enlarge the fetus in the public eye, while edging women out of the picture.”

Source: Moira Weigel, “How Ultrasound Became Political” The Atlantic, January 24, 2017,

Student Researchers: Theresa Lemus (Citrus College) and Alexandra Valencia (Citrus College)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)