Re-visioning Ultrasound

By Sian Beynon-Jones

Western popular culture tells a particular story about what it means to have an ultrasound during pregnancy. This is described as a pivotal, joyful, moment during which a woman both sees the fetus as a separate ‘person’, and develops an emotional relationship with it.

However, this narrative is contested by feminist scholarship, which illustrates that, although ultrasound images are often described as having a single ‘objective’ meaning, their significance depends on the social context in which they are produced and viewed. For example, Lisa Mitchell and Eugenia Georges demonstrate that ultrasound is practiced differently during prenatal care in Canada and Greece. In Canada, health professionals describe the fetus as a separate ‘person’ during scans, and women typically view their fetuses in these terms. In Greece, ultrasound is treated mainly as a diagnostic tool to assess fetal health, and pregnant women do not tend to view their fetuses as separate individuals.

Nonetheless, as Julie Roberts (2012) highlights, the dominant ‘story’ about ultrasound persists, making it difficult to talk about reproductive experiences that do not fit this narrative. In my research I am concerned about the implications of this situation for women who decide to end their pregnancies.

In England (as in many other countries) ultrasound is a routine part of abortion care: it is used to check for multiple or ectopic pregnancies, and to confirm gestation. In line with prior research (here, here,  here, here, and here) which shows that some women value the option to see their ultrasound image before abortion, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends that women should be offered a choice about this.

In my study, I was less concerned with the ‘choices’ that women make about looking/not looking at ultrasound images, and more interested in the social meaning of having an ultrasound before an abortion. What kind of story is it possible to tell about this experience?

During interviews that I conducted with twenty-three women about their experiences of having an abortion in England, many women commented on the way that popular culture portrays ultrasound as a pivotal moment of maternal-fetal bonding. This dominant ‘story’ made it difficult to find ways of describing and making sense of their own, very different, experiences of having an ultrasound as part of the process of ending a pregnancy.

However, in spite of these difficulties, the women who took part in my study offered two alternative depictions of ultrasound, which pose an important challenge to the mainstream narrative.

Several women described ultrasound as a technology that can produce emotionally significant visual encounters with the fetus, but stressed that the meaning of these encounters is always shaped by the social context in which they occur. For example, some described how their knowledge about the social unsustainability of their pregnancy formed part of their experience of looking at their ultrasound image. In this context, they emphasised, having an ultrasound can reinforce the decision to end a pregnancy.

Other women narrated ultrasound very differently, as a neutral medical examination that was simply part of the process of having an abortion. In describing ultrasound in this way, some women also suggested it could de-personify the fetus, because it made it possible to understand ‘the science’ of what was happening inside their bodies, and the developmental insignificance of their pregnancy.

Collectively, women’s accounts of pre-abortion ultrasound highlight the constraints of the dominant ‘story’ that is told about ultrasound, and illustrate the ongoing importance – and possibility – of changing this narrative to make space for varying experiences of pregnancy.

Siân Beynon-Jones is lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. Her article, “Re-visioning Ultrasound Through Women’s Accounts of Pre-Abortion Care in England” is published in the XX issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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