A new industry has developed around the ultrasound technology used as a diagnostic tool in medicine. Parents-to-be are having vanity ultrasound portraits taken of their unborn children.
In fact, so many people are now taking "pre-baby" photos and so many unregulated "studios" are popping up to offer the service that doctors groups and the Food and Drug Administration have issued warnings about the dangers of ultrasound misuse.
Ultrasound is peeling back the curtain on the unrevealed child in utero. Or, as some people will choose to refer to it, a fetus. Medical technology, at the same time, is rendering obsolete much of the language of the abortion debate.
How does one know if an unborn child is a baby or a fetus?
The question was highlighted by a gruesome crime that took place last month in Missouri. Authorities have charged Lisa Montgomery with strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant.
Montgomery, however, did more. According to one Associated Press report, she's also accused of "cutting out the fetus and taking the baby."
Ponder that feat of linguistic gymnastics. Was Stinnett pregnant with one child the fetus and Montgomery took another child the baby? Or was there only one child involved and some transformative event occurred in the instant between being cut out and taken?
The answer, of course, is neither. There was only one child, but no transformative event. The child, a girl, was as much a baby before she was cut from her mother's womb as after. Miraculously, she survived and eventually was reunited with her father.
Prebirth ultrasounds and the archaic reasoning revealed in the Stinnett murder make some people in the pro-choice movement distinctly uncomfortable. For them, anything that might confer babyhood on a fetus, anything that might affect people's perceptions about an unrestricted policy of abortion on demand is viewed as a threat.
Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, recently told pro-choice activists they need to reconsider "the value of the fetus." In the winter issue of Free Choice magazine, she observed the political consequences of "what appears to be an absolute right to abortion that brooks no consideration of other values."
"As the fetus has become more visible through both antiabortion efforts and advances in fetal medicine," Kissling admonished, "this stance has become less satisfying as either a moral framework or a message strategy."
Some Democratic leaders, including Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton and several candidates for national party chairman, are echoing that sentiment. Which is for the good. The terms of the political debate about abortion must reconcile with the attitudinal changes wrought by technology.
People who are framing ultrasound photos of their unborn children will not succumb to the notion that their lives are a matter of "choice."
A child ripped from its mother's womb at eight months cannot be a victim while the same child crushed in a surgical procedure is not. The act of being "wanted" does not confer life.
Parents keeping vigils in neo-natal intensive care units will not accept that at 26 weeks of gestation a child is not "viable."
Just more than six years ago, my son was born three months early. In the course of a few hours of panic and unanswered prayers, he arrived dangerously prematurely, just over two pounds and 15 inches long.
In desperate situations, people look for the most inconsequential signs of hope. As an avid fisherman, I knew that the legal minimum to keep a speckled trout, a prized game fish in Texas, was 15 inches. As painful as that mental comparison was, I tried to hearten myself by saying, "He's a keeper."
After months of intensive care from exceptional doctors and staff, my son came home, our prayers answered. Today he is a perfectly healthy boy.
At some hospitals and clinics, however, he would not have been a keeper. In fact, he would not have been a baby.