It is only in the last 30 years that it has been possible to visualize
the living fetus. Before then, its life was often acknowledged at "quickening,"
when the pregnant woman first noticed it moving within the uterus. With the
new ability to see the fetus as an independent organism, however, both medical
science and society now envision the maternal-fetal relationship as beginning
at a much earlier stage in fetal development. Visual imagery, specifically
sonography, has become an important representation of that relationship. Consider
a recent television commercial featuring high-resolution 3-dimensional sonographic
images of a third-trimester fetus or a Time cover
story describing Alexander Tsiaras' beautifully detailed, computer-enhanced
images of fetal development as "at the forefront of a biomedical revolution."1 These contemporary biomedical images of the fetus
are changing public perception of the unborn and may shift the balance of
legal rights from the maternal to the fetal body.
Due in part to laws restricting human anatomical dissection, accurate
depictions of the fetus did not appear until 1799, when Samuel Thomas Soemmerring
published plates of staged embryonic development.2 And
it was not until 1965, when Lennart Nilsson's photograph of an 18-week fetus
appeared on the cover of Life, that the image of
a fetus became widely recognized.
The photographic quality of modern sonography, given its role in fetal
measurement and diagnostics, carries with it a connotation of objectivity
that may deflect attention from the cultural assumptions that give these images
such authority. Fasouliotis and Schenker write, "The biological maternal fetal
relationship has not changed but the medical model of that relationship has
shifted emphasis from unity to duality. Physicians no longer look to the maternal
host for diagnostic data and a therapeutic medium; they look through her to
the fetal organism and regard it as a distinct patient in its own right."3
Casper agrees that as fetal imaging technology advances, so does the
likelihood of seeing the fetus as an entity separate from its maternal host.4 Mirroring the improved resolution of the fetal
image has been the growth of "fetus as patient" advocates who explicitly argue
for equal and competing interests of the fetus.5 When
the fetus is increasingly visualized as a person, resolving ethical tensions
between the welfare of the mother and fetus becomes a contest between their
rights and obligations.3 Pateman has argued
that the assumption of the impregnable male body was implicit in the work
of Locke and Rousseau, which continues to influence current debate.6 Liberal political theories have generally not accorded
the pregnant body any unique individual rights. Against this ambiguous political
context, biomedical images of the fetus gain meaning.
The fetal image in popular culture is frequently depicted without reference
to the pregnant woman's body.7 Nilsson's
photographs and Tsiaris' computer models depict the suspended, solitary, floating
fetal individual without the maternal placenta, the gravid uterus, or the
maternal vascular system that nourishes the fetus. In standard representations
of pregnancy such as medical texts or the film The Miracle
of Life, women's bodies are represented as oceanic environs: fertile
media in which life grows.8,9 Duden
has argued that "the public image of the fetus shapes the emotional and the
bodily perception of the pregnant woman."2 The
mother and fetus are represented not as equal individuals, but rather as a
biological matrix and its product. While modern in medium, these images echo
ancient depictions of the pregnant body. In Aristotle's biology, for instance,
women were considered only as hosts to men's seed.10
The visual technologies of the latter 20th century have reconfigured
and amplified the ancient concept of woman as a principally generative space.
In her discussion of fetal surgery, Casper agrees that the fetus has become
a conceptual entity independent from the mother.4 Whether
or not the sonogram in its focus on the fetus in effect "erase[s] women,"4 there is a growing consensus that visual imagery
of the fetus is changing the medical and cultural status of the maternal-fetal
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