Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

(Re)presenting the Fetus: The Limits of Objective Vision in "Birthmates" and "The Ultrasound"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

(Re)presenting the Fetus: The Limits of Objective Vision in "Birthmates" and "The Ultrasound"

Article excerpt

The fetal ultrasound image is a familiar enough staple of American iconography that most viewers immediately recognize the fetal silhouette, "with its enlarged head and finlike arms, suspended in its balloon of amniotic fluid" (Petchesky 268). Fetal images are more widely accessible to the public than are other types of medical images and have become ubiquitous in mass media and anti-abortion propaganda. Additionally, in recent decades, fetal ultrasounds have become a "right of passage" for expectant women, at least those with insurance, despite their questionable medical value and the possible risks associated with them (Leary). However, though fetal images have become ubiquitous, they still pose considerable interpretive difficulties. In Baby's First Picture, Lisa Mitchell observes that "although [fetal] ultrasound is perceived to be a 'window,' it is a 'window' through which different groups see different things" (7).

Indeed, fetal images are informed by political, commercial, medical, and domestic contexts, and any given spectator might see these images in a number of ways depending on how he or she is positioned within these contexts. For example, it is difficult to predict how an expectant woman will see and interpret her ultrasound images because her viewing will be informed by whether or not the pregnancy is desired, what she thinks about the issues or abortion and fetal personhood, her feelings about medical intervention in pregnancy, and her age, race, class, nationality, and religion. It is not even uncommon for a specific viewer to adopt multiple, sometimes conflicting, viewpoints from which to see and interpret fetal images. However, the most common discourses on fetal imaging do not generally acknowledge the complexity of this viewing scenario. Though there are likely as many ways to view fetal images as there are spectators of these images, it is possible to identify three dominant discourses, each of which claims the authority to correctly and objectively interpret fetal images. I refer to these discourses as documentary (associated with anti-abortion politics and the mass media), diagnostic (the position of the medical community), and skeptical (or the feminist response to fetal imaging).

Likely the most pervasive discourse on fetal imaging is associated with anti-abortion politics and the mass media. This discourse is manifest in the numerous public uses that have been made of fetal images. While anti-abortion groups continue to depend heavily on these images in their materials, using them on protest signs, roadside billboards, and other literature, fetal images have also been central to commercial campaigns by AT&T, Volvo, Honda, and Huggies, and in television programs and films. Though mass media representations of fetal imaging evoke "pleasurable consumer linkages with products and services" (Mehaffy 178), while anti-abortion representations tend to link the images to "narrative[s] of violence and death" (182), Marilyn Mehaffy notes that the two types of representations are strikingly similar. Both construct the fetus as "a speaking, thinking subject and cinematic family member" (178), and, at the same time, they present the fetus as the single image of pregnancy, largely erasing the maternal body and disembodying pregnant women by suggesting that the fetus is completely independent from the context of a maternal body.

In order to construct the fetus as a person using ultrasound technologies, mass media and anti-abortion representations invoke documentary access to fetal bodies, and the coherence of these representations depends on the viewer accepting the images as realistic and accurate, despite the fact that "[n] either the moving sonographic image nor its still photograph constitutes a 'picture' in the familiar realist sense, but rather a digitally-replicated image of deferred sound" (Mehaffy 180-81). Indeed, medical images in general do not employ the kinds of details that characterize photographs. …

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