When the U. S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion, ultrasonic imaging of the human body was still largely in its early research stages. Unborn babies were neither seen nor heard, and the knowledge of the average citizen about embryology and what went on in a mother’s womb before birth was hazy at best. That was one reason why the phrase “terminating a pregnancy” as a euphemism for abortion gained currency, and why many organizations, religious and otherwise, were slow to mount opposition to legalized abortion.
Others such as Planned Parenthood welcomed the ruling with open arms. The philosophy that says women own their bodies and all products thereof, and are free to do with them whatever they like, leads to the conclusion that eliminating an inconvenient truth such as a pregnancy by means of abortion is one tool in an array of technological controls that include contraception methods of all kinds.
Fast-forward to 2008 or so. A woman named Abby Johnson received the employee-of-the-year award from her employer, which happened to be Planned Parenthood. Abby had had two abortions herself, and regarded them as a woman’s right. Abortions were a necessary part of empowerment that incidentally paid her well and allowed her to rise to a management position in the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas.
One day a physician arrived from Austin with an ultrasound machine, the type used to view the wombs of pregnant women. He wanted to show how using the machine could lead to improvements in the efficiency of certain kinds of abortions, and that day Abby happened to be the person holding the ultrasound probe on the patient’s abdomen while the doctor did what he was there to do. Abby thought she was inured to the “products of conception” that had to be sorted out after each abortion, to make sure no arms or legs were left inside, before they were disposed of along with the other medical waste. But there was something different in watching the baby jump away from the doctor’s instrument as it got closer and closer, and the baby was cornered in one end of what should be the safest place in the world. Another minute, and it was all over. But Abby’s journey out of the world of abortions had just begun.
Abby Johnson is now a vocal and unstoppable witness for the pro-life cause. Last week she was in San Marcos, and I was privileged to hear her speak about her experience. I also met two college-age women who were also converted to the pro-life cause by seeing graphic images of what abortion is really like. One of them, Sarah Ryan, notes that six states (including Texas) have passed laws that require abortion clinics to show each prospective client a sonogram of the baby in her womb before performing the procedure. The technology to do this is now relatively inexpensive, and it is almost routine for prospective parents to put a sonogram of their pre-newborn on the refrigerator before his or her official arrival. Seeing is believing, and after watching the beating heart and baby-like movements of the living child within her own body, it will be admittedly harder for women to go through with what Planned Parenthood clinics around the country are set up to do for her.
Like many advances in medical technology, obstetric ultrasonic imaging was the work of dozens or hundreds of doctors, scientists, and engineers. But probably the most influential paper showing that it was not a pipe dream but a realistic technology was published in 1958 by Dr. Ian Donald, a Scottish physician with experience in World War II radar. His images of a pregnant woman’s womb obtained with safe and non-invasive ultrasound technology set off a storm of interest, which issued later in the development of commercial systems in the early 1960s and eventually the highly portable and economical devices that many obstetricians use today. It is significant that Dr. Donald raised his famous voice in protest over the 1967 Abortion Act legalizing abortion in the United Kingdom. Over forty years later, the descendants of his primitive ultrasound machine are still at work convincing women of the true significance of the mass of tissue inside their pregnant bodies.
The truth about abortion is now plain to see, thanks to technologies such as ultrasound and other modern imaging techniques. I find it intriguing that one of the most powerful things that can happen to a woman to change her to a pro-life supporter is to witness images of the graphic horror of abortion. Such scenes are not for everybody, and such pictures can be used wrongly to abuse women who are already tormented by the anxiety of what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. But I think it might be a good idea for every woman of child-bearing age at least to see a live ultrasound image of a baby in the womb of a real mother, before she herself faces the kind of choice that can lead to abortion. And if laws requiring abortion clinics to show sonograms to their clients are passed in more states, we can look forward to more babies surviving to become adults who—who knows?—may invent things just as wonderful as Dr. Donald’s ultrasound machine. It is a price of abortion that we seldom stop to think about.
Sources: Abby Johnson’s book about her experiences is titled Unplanned (Tyndale, 2010). Sarah Ryan’s article “It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a Marathon” on state laws restricting abortion appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Human Life Review (p. 124). I referred to articles on the history of obstetrical ultrasonic imaging at the websites http://www.ob-ultrasound.net/iandonaldbio.html and http://www.ob-ultrasound.net/history1.html.