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New Ultrasound Technology Sparks Abortion Debate - 2004-07-08

A new type of ultrasound scan is giving parents and doctors a much clearer view of what goes on inside a pregnant woman's womb. This has been especially exciting for parents, who can now see a clear picture of their baby long before it is born. The new technology, which provides a three-dimensional image of the fetus as it moves about the womb, can be useful to doctors in diagnosing any problems. But the technique has also had an unexpected impact on the debate about abortion.

Pictures and video from the new technology show that an unborn baby can stretch, kick and leap around the womb much earlier than had previously been thought.

"You see very complex hand movements, the baby learning spatial awareness, yawning, eventually you see the eyelids opening," explains British ultrasound pioneer Professor Stuart Campbell. He says the new three-dimensional technology has enabled parents to bond with their baby even before it is born.

"Mothers feel very, very emotional. Fathers will kiss the screen and kiss the wife's abdomen. Two-D scanning is not easy to understand, but with this it just looks like their baby and is very, very exciting," he says.

Dr. Campbell says the improved images from inside the womb are also useful to doctors, who can now much more closely monitor the fetus's development.

"So, it's a progressive development of the nervous system and the reflexes and behavior and we can trace that and document it and now I believe with this new technology we can have sort of the milestones of development," he adds.

And that is where the difficulty lies for some opponents of abortion. They worry that more women could decide to have abortions based on problems found through the new ultrasound scans.

Other abortion opponents say the images should have the opposite effect because, in their view, the pictures and videos clearly show that fetuses are human. They say the stretches, yawns, even smiles and frowns, by the fetuses prove that abortion is murder.

Josephine Quintavalle is the director of a British group that opposes abortion.

"I think it definitely does speak to the nation and says that the baby is very human indeed," she says, "but in earlier stages in gestation is probably not quite so obvious to everybody how human it is."

Ms. Quintavalle says the new ultrasound images will change the minds of many people in Britain, at least with regard to how late in a pregnancy abortion should be allowed. Currently, abortions are allowed in Britain up to 24 weeks of development. The new technology shows baby-like activity by fetuses as early as 12 weeks.

But social policy lecturer Ellie Lee says the new ultrasound images are misleading. Ms. Lee, at the University of Kent, says the fetus movements are just reflexes, and do not indicate any thought or emotions.

"Unfortunately the way it's going is that they are very much being presented as images, which suggest to us that a fetus from a very early stage of development is basically just like a little tiny person," she says. "It's been given personhood and it's communicating the sense that it has personality, which I think is simply scientifically incorrect."

Ms. Lee says, who has done a study on women who seek abortions, says the new technology will not change most women's decisions to have an abortion. She says most women have abortions based on their sense of having the capacity to be a mother. But she says some women could be swayed by the high quality pictures and decide to have a baby they really don't want.

Dr. Campbell, one of the main users of the new technology, acknowledges it could have an impact on the abortion debate. But he says it is important to use the technique anyway.

"I am sure they will be using these images to support their cause, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't know what happens to the baby," he says. "Most women who have a child want to keep it and we mustn't deny them information about their baby because there is an argument going on about termination."

The abortion debate will go on in Britain and elsewhere, with new fuel from the new ultrasound technology. Meanwhile, doctors will use the pictures and videos to diagnose problems, and parents will have the thrill of seeing their babies before they are born.