On ultrasounds, “good mothers”, and women’s reproductive rights.
Supporters of women’s reproductive rights and autonomy have cried foul at Carly Fiorina’s cynical use of ultrasound as a backdrop to her fact-challenged takedown of Planned Parenthood. In a recent video filmed in a private clinic in South Carolina, Fiorina stands at the side of Lacey Thomas, seventeen weeks pregnant with her second child. With more than a dozen reporters in the room, Ms Fiorina gripped Ms. Thomas’ elbow, laughed with her about baby names and the joys of pregnancy, and marveled at the visible spinal cord—then left to address reporters, using the moment as an opportunity to denounce public funding for Planned Parenthood clinics.
While much media attention has focused on the expansive range of reproductive health care offered to women at Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation, and the inaccuracies of Fiorina’s statements regarding the videos alleged to have been made at a Planned Parenthood clinic, it serves us well to focus more closely on the ultrasound itself. My work on our cultural obsession with celebrity pregnancy brings to light the important ways that ultrasound technology is put to work for cultural and political purposes.
For celebrity moms, reality moms, and real-life moms, being shown the baby via ultrasound is an important ritual in pregnancy. As Lisa Mitchell wrote in her excellent (2001) history of the technology:
The ultrasound fetus is so emotionally compelling that it has become a source of cultural entertainment. It appears in movies … television shows, and comic strips, as well as in print and electronic advertisements—for example, for computers, cars … telephone companies, and sports cable networks.
Reality television shows featuring stars like Snooki, Jessica Simpson, and the Kardashians all include the ultrasound as an important moment in the lives of these pregnant women. Celebrities share these moments with their fans and followers in other ways. Actress Busy Philipps recently posted her ultrasound photo to her 124,000 followers on Instagram, television star Sarah Drew posted a narrative of her ultrasound experience as part of her blog series for OhBaby! Magazine, and the trailer for Beyonce’s HBO biopic documentary (“Life is But a Dream”) included grainy, lo-resolution footage of Blue Ivy’s fetal image.
Average, non-celebrity, women communicate about their pregnancies in similar ways. They use ultrasound photos to announce their pregnancies on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat; they post ultrasound photos to reveal the sex of the child, to plan parties around the gender reveal, to plan shower activities, and to guide gift-giving.
While complex politics are behind the recent return to anti-woman legislation in several states, our popular culture reinforces the idea that ultrasounds, testing, and fetal protection unduly burdening women’s autonomy are the “norm.”
Though I didn’t share the photos with anyone, nor use ultrasound to plan a “gender reveal” party, I certainly made the ultrasound appointment an important landmark in my own pregnancy. My husband and I were excited to see the fetus that we had lovingly named “zy-the-goat” (for when he was a mere zygote). And, though we didn’t want to know the gender, a technician’s unintentional language let us know we were going to have a boy. And of course: we made a day of it. We spent the afternoon after the ultrasound walking around Venice Beach; we ate vegan Asian fusion at Chairman Mao’s, and I bought a lovely silk sundress that I still wear—and when I do, I think happily of that day.
By participating in ultrasound, I was acting the role of a “good mother.” As Mitchell writes, I was showing my doctors and peers that I was “responsible … and willing to reduce risks to the fetus.” Celebrities who share their ultrasound photos and experiences are performing “good mother” for the general public, too.
But once they share them, the images—and their political uses—are out of their hands. Of Halle Berry’s description of her ultrasound on the David Letterman show, one pro-life blogger opines: "While unmarried Berry is a poor role model for black women, already in crisis with a 70% illegitimate delivery rate, her baby is a blessing nonetheless. And I'll take her free advertisement of the value ultrasounds bring to reveal the humanity of preborn babies and also enhance parental bonding."
While complex politics are behind the recent return to anti-woman legislation in several states, our popular culture reinforces the idea that ultrasounds, testing, and fetal protection unduly burdening women’s autonomy are the “norm,” whether or not they have salutary effects on the lives of women and children. Cultural acceptance of them has roots in and synergy with our acceptance of popular culture representation, commodification, and regulation of celebrity pregnancies—from stolen or leaked ultrasound photos to paparazzi shots of the beginnings of the “bump.”
Indeed, Mitchell finds that the growth in use of ultrasound technology in the early 1980s revitalized an anti-choice activism that focused on picturing the fetus in the womb. Images of fetal life suspended in a womb could enable a discourse of women as mere “hosts” of fetal life. Such language denies the humanity of the mother, and the reality of her medical, emotional, and financial needs. Politicized uses of ultrasound imagery—like Carly Fiorina’s visit to a pregnancy care center—facilitate that language. Indeed, the ultrasound that gives a woman and her partner pleasure in bonding with an unborn child, and helps their doctors to detect both gender and potential defects, is the same technology that is forced upon women wanting to make autonomous reproductive choices in several state jurisdictions.