trouble with 'smiling' fetuses
By Ellie Lee
September 13, 2003
Last week, hi-tech scans
of fetuses in-utero made the world media, accompanied
by headlines claiming that the fetuses were 'smiling and crying'.
The pictures were generated
with a new technology, known as 3D and 4D ultrasound scanning,
which produces fetal images that are very clear - far more
so than the grainy pictures most of us are familiar with.
A London clinic, Create Health Centre for Reproduction and
Advanced Technology, has reportedly pioneered the use of the
new scanning technique, and provided the recent images to
Opponents of abortion argue
that the technology is likely to increase support for their
cause. Paul Deacon of the Society for the Protection of Unborn
Children (SPUC) argues that the images prove 'abortion has
no place in a civilised society'. In fact, they prove no such
thing. That Deacon can draw this conclusion shows, rather,
that those who oppose abortion are living on another planet.
The anti-abortionists' response
indicates just how out of touch with women's experience of
pregnancy they are. 'This development [the new ultrasound
technique] will show people the humanity of the unborn child',
said Deacon. What did he reckon pregnant women who have abortions
think they are carrying? A frog? A baby pig? Pregnant women
who have abortions (and those of us who unreservedly support
their right to do so) do know that fetuses are human.
We also understand, however,
that it is still perfectly acceptable for a pregnancy to be
ended by an abortion. This is because, while we know that
a fetus is human (in a genetic and biological sense), we also
appreciate that it is not a person. And the failure to make
this distinction is the major flaw in the arguments of anti-abortionists.
Their response to the ultrasound
images of the 'smiling' fetus indicates that they are unable
to grasp some pretty simple aspects of human experience. As
most people understand, the expression of emotions and feelings
(a crucial aspect of what it means to be a person) requires
some development of the self. Just because a fetus moves its
facial muscles and curves its lips does not mean it is 'smiling'
in any real sense of the word.
Smiling is an activity that
has social connotations. To smile requires a degree of self-consciousness
and experience of interacting with other people. You do not
have to be a genius to work out that a fetus, or indeed a
small baby, does not have this. Small babies often smile when
they fart or poo in their nappies, and they do this in front
of other people. Does this mean they experiencing the same
kind of emotion that might make a child smile when she sees
a clown, or anyone smile when they see a friend? At the very
least, these basic observations suggest that there is more
to smiling than simply curving your mouth. We have now been
shown that 25- or 26-week-old fetuses move their facial muscles
- but that is all they are doing.
That we can now see that fetuses
can move their facial muscles in this way does not make one
jot of difference to the case for abortion. It does not tell
us that a fetus is a person, and it does not undermine in
any sense the case for the legal provision of abortion.
The truth is that abortion
is chosen by women, and is allowed by society, because it
is widely considered that women should not be compelled to
bear children that they do not want to have. What matters
for most people - and this is reflected in the practice of
abortion provision - is that women are given the ability to
make decisions about when they consider it appropriate and
sensible to have a child.
What would be truly uncivilised
is the logical consequence of the view argued for by Deacon
and others - to compel all women, no matter what the circumstances
of the pregnancy or their feelings about it, to continue every
pregnancy to term and give birth. And because the vast majority
of people recognise this, it is wishful thinking on the part
of those opposed to abortion to imagine that pictures of fetuses,
however much they 'smile', 'wave', or even appear to dance
the Highland fling, will lead to abortion being restricted
by law or rejected by women.
The idea that fetuses 'smile'
may, however, increase discomfort about abortion - especially
among women who choose it. In other similar instances, for
example when it has been argued that fetuses feel pain, women
presenting for abortion have as a result ended up fretting
a great deal about what will happen to the fetus during a
termination. So while the coverage of 'smiling fetuses' won't
stop abortion, it may make it a more difficult experience.
for discussion of 'fetal pain').
One fact that has been lost
in all the coverage is that the 'smiling' fetus splashed across
the newspapers was at least 26 weeks old. At this gestational
stage, fewer than 100 abortions are performed in Britain each
year. In so far as women do have abortions at this stage of
pregnancy, they do so mostly because the fetus has been diagnosed
with an abnormality. (Indeed, the purpose of the new ultrasound
technology is to detect abnormalities, rather than smiles.)
These are wanted pregnancies, and the woman and her partner
have to undergo the ordeal of choosing to end it.
But much of the media coverage
failed to highlight this making it seem as if all abortions
are of fetuses that 'smile' and look like little babies. Such
misrepresentation could unnecessarily increase the anxiety
of the thousands of women who abort pregnancies in early pregnancy
(when the fetus looks nothing like a baby, and certainly does
not 'smile') and exacerbate the distress of those who undergo
the ordeal of a late termination for fetal abnormality.
Perhaps SPUC would have few
qualms about these consequences. But some newspapers were
also complicit in distorting the truth about abortion. The
London Evening Standard's Isabel Oakeshott wrote an
article with the sub-head 'Stunning new images reopen debate
over feelings of unborn children' - and included comments
only from those opposed to abortion. One would have hoped
for a more balanced and informed piece from someone with the
title 'health correspondent'.
Perhaps most worrying of all,
however, was the way that some scientists let their emotions
(or desire to get in the media) get the better of them. Professor
Stuart Campbell is the obstetrician at the Create Health Centre
who has used the new scanning technique, and who spoke to
the press about it. He seemed to think there was nothing problematic
about stating that fetuses 'smile' in the womb, as if they
are just like six-month-old babies or small children.
Campbell even made the rather
bizarre comment that: 'This may indicate a baby's calm, trouble-free
existence in the womb, and the relatively traumatic first
few weeks after birth, when the baby is reacting to a new
environment.' In other words, according to Campbell, babies
don't smile until about six weeks after they have been born
because they are so traumatised by being born. Until then,
when they were in the womb, they are happy as could be, and
understand they are happy.
This sounds to me like little
more than sentimentality. Professor Campbell likes babies, especially
when they are happy, and is therefore delighted where he sees
one 'smiling' in the womb. But this is not science, and it is
not evidence. It tells us nothing about what it means to be
a person, and nothing about the development of human consciousness.
of his ultrasound pictures is reminiscent of the approach
taken by some in discussion of the idea that a fetus can feel
pain. Those who believe fetuses feel pain point out that babies
screw their faces up during and just after birth. Babies really
look like they are in pain and so, they argue, we have
to consider that they may well be, and organise obstetric
care (and the provision of abortion services) on this basis.
This superficial approach
to a serious and important issue is troubling. It indicates
that some who have a scientific training are letting their
hearts rule their heads. Perhaps the most important demand
we can make in response to the 'smiling fetuses' coverage
is for scientists and clinicians to avoid this kind of sentimentalising,
and to keep in view what it means to think scientifically.
Isabel Oakeshott, 'Proof Babies Smile in Womb', Evening Standard,