A fetus became Internet famous in July 2014. Redditor meancloth shared a scan of the not-quite baby. It was giving the world a thumbs-up. The web dubbed it "Fetus Fonzie." Within 24 hours, two million people had seen it.
"Ultrasound looks good," meancloth commented. And it did. At 18 weeks, the Fonz was as adorable as the contents of a gray-scaled amniotic sac can be. The Today show covered the story. So did Jezebel and People and the Daily Mail. Six months later, a writer for the conservative magazine The National Review, Howard Slugh, deemed the shot of "Fetus Fonzie" in utero "one of the most profound pro-life moments of 2014."
"When a matter is as hotly charged as the abortion debate, the mechanism for sharing a message can prove as important as the message itself," he wrote. "Ultrasounds, and other improving technologies, can help the pro-life movement persuade previously unreachable individuals."
Slugh wrote that as science and medicine advance, pro-choice advocates would have to face a new set of facts: "A mother looking at an ultrasound of her ten- or twelve-week-old child will know that this is no mere clump of cells, bit of tissue, or tumor." Instead, finer-tuned technology and clearer ultrasounds would force people to reevaluate "the entire abortion debate."
A week later, Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the Catholic Association, elaborated on the culture wars in USA Today. "[T]he pro-life movement is growing younger and stronger," she wrote. Because of the prevalence of prenatal scans on social media, young people know that fetuses are people. She celebrated the fact that in the first four years of the 2010s "more pro-life laws [have been] passed by state legislatures than in the entire previous decade." It is the mission of the movement to protect "the most innocent lives," McGuire wrote. "And we won't stop until we've won."
She titled her op-ed "The Ultrasound Generation."
It's a good headline, neatly expressing the anti-choice movement's conviction that millennials raised in a culture that celebrates and even fetishizes the prenatal picture have been hardwired to oppose abortion. And it's backed up by some research, which finds that liberal-leaning millennials tend to consider the moral valence of abortion more than traditional liberals once did.
Except most of the hard data is messier. Is it true that more millennials believe abortion should be outlawed compared to previous generations? If they do, how did social media influence them? And how many "likes" would it take to make, say, me a convert?
Scottish physician Dr. Ian Donald started to develop the ultrasound in 1958, realizing it could help doctors locate and treat tumors. But he soon decided to try the machines out on expectant mothers. He reasoned that "the most common abdominal tumor in women is pregnancy," which is charming. With a peek into the shadowy womb, the scans could reveal once-obscured fetal anomalies, the size of the fetus, and the placement of its organs. By the 1980s, the ultrasound was standard obstetric practice.
Later in his career, Donald started printing photos from the ultrasound to give to patients. Women could have a medical procedure and take home a keepsake — two-for-one. By all accounts, Donald wanted both to reassure his most nervous patients and to facilitate a deeply felt prenatal bond. When he retired from medicine, he became a fierce anti-abortion activist. He produced a film, Human Development Before Birth, which screened on international television for at least a decade.
When the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion in the United States in 1972, the anti-choice movement became even more convinced that the ultrasound could be marshaled in service of the movement. Johanna Schoen writes in her book on abortion in a post-Roe world that the dissemination of the ultrasound in the media was intended "to provide the public with a view of abortion from the perspective of the fetus." That is, the personal is political.