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9 October 2006

Science, smiling fetuses, and the abortion debate

The notion that 4-D images provide an argument against abortion is based more on emotion than science. Comment by Ellie Lee.

It is now three years since the debate provoked by Professor Stuart Campbell’s 4-D ultrasound images of the ‘smiling’ fetus began (1). Over this time, these images have become ubiquitous. They have been referred to time and time again in media commentaries, especially by those contending that abortion should banned in Britain at an earlier stage in pregnancy than is now the case.

The claim made throughout this discussion has been that 4-D images provide ‘new medical evidence’ against legal abortion. These images, it has been argued, prove that the fetus, from quite an early stage, exhibits human feelings and emotions, and that this means that a law permitting abortion to 24 weeks of pregnancy is ethically dubious.

In the light of this it is very welcome to find that, at last, those who have expertise in this area have entered the debate. On 2 October experts on fetal development made comments about what the 4-D images tell us at a meeting held at London’s Science Media Centre (2). In particular, participants addressed the question of whether 4-D tells us anything new, and also of what science does really tell us about the point at which fetus might feel emotion.

Speaking at the event was Donald Peebles of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University College London. ‘These images don’t tell me anything I haven’t known for 30 years’, he noted. ‘We know what it [the fetus] looks like, and that it moves continuously. I don’t think in a scientific sense this sheds any new light on the debate’.

Huseyin Mehmet, Reader in Developmental Neurobiology at Imperial College London, concurred. He also pointed out that much discussion of the 4-D images runs entirely contrary to what scientists know. In contrast to the notion that the developing fetus is biologically mature enough possibly to feel pain (cry) or feel pleasure (smile), he explained: ‘Scans that look at the structure of the fetal brain at 23 to 24 weeks show that the human brain is extremely immature. It is the period between 24 and 40 weeks that is largely responsible for brain development’.

The third participant at the event was Professor John Wyatt of University College Hospital London. Wyatt is one of Britain’s most eminent and highly-regarded neonatal paediatricians, but often a vocal opponent of abortion. Yet he too, speaking as a scientist, agreed. ‘It is clear that the vast amount of activity is happening mainly in the last three months of pregnancy’, he stated. ‘The link between cortex and the rest of the body doesn’t come into play until 23 to 24 weeks’.

These doctors have made some very important points clear. First, there is nothing new at all, in a medical sense, about what 4-D ultrasonography shows us. Second, this technology does not and cannot contribute to helping us understand the development of consciousness and emotion; on the contrary, discussion provoked by these ultrasound images to date has actively misrepresented understanding about this issue.

The absence of anything ‘new’ associated with 4-D is a well-made point. The scientific question of at what point a fetus become sentient has been the subject of serious discussion for over a decade. These arguments are well-worn, and contradict the sorts of claims surrounding 4-D images. Debate goes on about what true emotional experience constitutes, but there is no serious body of opinion that considers fetal imaging pertinent to this debate, or which considers there to be evidence of even the biological basis for emotional experience before very late gestational stages (3).

These points have been made consistently in public arenas over the last three years. Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of bpas, for example, has argued time and again that while 4-D images give parents with wanted pregnancies something new experientially, since these parents can revel in seeing the pregnancy develop, from a scientific point of view the technology innovates nothing: ‘It contributes little, if anything, to medical knowledge and nothing about the discussion that is relevant to late abortion’. As she points out, the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s images, published 15 years ago, which tracked a pregnancy from ovulation to birth, showed clearly the human physical characteristics of the ‘unborn child’ as early as six weeks’ gestation (4).

Psychologist Dr Stuart Derbyshire, perhaps Britain’s most prolific scientific commentator on these issues, has also explained the main point. Regardless of how astounding fetal development appears from 4-D images, ‘there can be no question that fetal development is limited’. ‘Seeking an equivalence between fetus and baby…is bound to produce disappointment and exaggeration,’ he has written (5).

Clarification of the scientifically illiterate nature of the debate about 4-D is welcome, and it is to be hoped that, in the future, more medical experts will take the lead of those who spoke out this week, contest bogus claims about science, and clarify these matters in public. This should not, however, be confused with the process of clarifying the abortion issue.

That this is the case was illustrated by Professor Campbell’s riposte to the Science Media Centre discussion. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he argues: ‘There is something deeply moving about the image of the baby cocooned inside the womb. When four-dimensional scans first became available three years ago, I sat with parents who trembled at the sight of their soon-to-be newborn…We have to draw the line [on legal access to abortion] somewhere, and 24 weeks is too late’ (6). In other words, Campbell, working on a daily basis with prospective parents viewing 4D images of much wanted pregnancies, cannot reconcile this experience with allowing women legally to terminate pregnancies, certainly past 18 weeks.

Anyone who has had a wanted pregnancy, seen the scan images, and so wondered at the amazing progression over 40 weeks of a pregnancy from ball of cells to waking baby, will also have felt deeply moved, just like Professor Campbell. Yet many of us also understand this experience is of no relevance for the abortion law. We separate our perceptions and emotions of our own pregnancies from this issue.

It seems, however, that an inability to separate personal experience and emotion from the question of the abortion law is now central to the issue of abortion. A kind of emotional dissonance between personal experiences in regard to wanted pregnancies, and the legal provision of abortion, is now increasingly articulated in public. Indeed, if there is anything ‘new’ at all about the abortion debate as it currently exists, it is this.

It is, for example, just this sort of dissonance that is leading to criticism of legal abortion from unexpected quarters. Feminist commentators, including Naomi Wolf and Allison Pearson, have thus come out against the current abortion law, citing their own personal experience of pregnancy and that of their friends, as evidence. Politicians, not only those who are paid-up members of anti-abortion campaigns such as Life and SPUC, also draw upon just this sort of sensibility born of the experience of pregnancy and parenthood, when they express their distaste and discomfort with the current abortion law.

This approach is both morally and intellectually bankrupt. In focusing on what a fetus looks like and a wanted pregnancy feels like, over and above what science tells us about fetal development, its advocates display a profound lack of respect for science. Yet at the same time they are willing to cite ‘science’- in the form of 4-D technology, or exaggerated claims about survival rates for premature babies – to justify their position. In this way, ‘science’ is used to dress up personal feelings and experiences, and to avoid the real issues of the abortion debate: the experience of those women who seek abortion, the social problem of involuntary parenthood, and the moral issue of the right of women to decide about their lives and futures.

But this quasi-scientific emotional approach has become widespread, and is rarely challenged head on. It is important that those who are concerned about the abortion debate as it currently exists do not assume that science, even in its best and most robust form, can be relied upon to address the key questions. While it is useful to clarify the scientific value – or otherwise – of 4-D images, the debate also has to tackle a broader cultural problem, where subjective claims and references to personal experience increasingly frame the abortion issue.

As Dr Stuart Derbyshire has succinctly put it, ‘The question of who should and should not continue a pregnancy is not one that science can resolve. Trying to do so is likely to produce both bad science and bad law’.

Dr Ellie Lee is a lecturer in social policy at Kent University, and co-ordinator of Pro-Choice Forum.

1) The trouble with smiling fetuses, Pro-Choice Forum, 13 September 2003

2) Doctors grapple with abortion debate, BBC News, 3 October 2006; Foetus scans fuel abortion debate, Guardian, 3 October 2006; New foetal scans ‘clouded debate on abortion’, Times (London), 3 October 2006

3) The science and politics of fetal pain, Pro-Choice Forum, 4 September 2000; Late abortion: a review of the evidence, Pro-Choice Forum

4) Faith in the abortion debate, Ann Furedi, spiked, 31 March 2005

5) ‘Why I see no place for science in the abortion debate’. Stuart Derbyshire, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 21 January 2005

6) Don’t tear a smiling foetus from the womb, Telegraph, 4 October 2006

Also read:

Misconceptions over ‘walking’ fetuses, Abortion Review, 4 October 2006

Visualising abortion: emotion discourse and fetal imagery in a contemporary abortion debate. Hopkins N, Zeedyk S, Raitt F. Social Science and Medicine. 2005 Jul;61(2):393-403. Epub 2005 Jan 12.