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A Womb with a View: The Future of Reproductive Technology, As Seen by LIFE Magazine, 1965

In September of 1965, Life magazine ran a piece on medicine’s “astonishing” and “audacious experiments” that might even promise a “kind of immortality.” The first article dealt with reproduction.

The article predicted IVF technology not so much as an infertility treatment but as a means to create a space age “test tube colony” on another planet.  A doctor imagined that “fertilized egg cells could be shipped anywhere in cold storage containers.”

Attuned to the era’s preoccupations, the article envisioned “these techniques as particularly suitable to the space age, as a means of colonizing the planets” without the expense of sending heavy, fully-grown human-payloads into space. Scientists could send “test tubes” of fertilized egg cells instead, at a fraction of the cost.

The series also featured ultrasound. This technology was in its infancy. In 1965, it was producing hazy images that doctors called “semi-mystical” and akin to medical “witchcraft.” Life’s cover shows a woman, laying under a wave-conducting bag of water, as “ultrasonic waves project” a basic image of the fetus’ head on to a screen.

The article describes the pre-sonogram invisibility of the fetus and the opacity of the mother almost as a pathology. “Isolated in its mother’s womb,” they write, “the human fetus until recently has been inaccessible” to treatment or observation.

“Ultrasonics,” however, “probe beneath the surface” (the surface being the woman). With pioneering breakthroughs in the “brand new field of fetal medicine, the patient-within-a-patient will have come into his own.”

In the earliest years, images of ultrasound featured both the patient and the “patient within.” They depicted the symbiosis of pregnancy, giving visual weight to both.

This was the common visual semiotic with first-generation sonograms. Typically, the photograph depicts the pregnant woman, the entire machine, the doctor operating the machine, and a glimpse of the “semi-mystical” fetal image in the corner.

Sonogram technology was the brainchild of war and a Scottish boilermaker. A boilermaker in Glasgow and Ian Donald, a Scottish professor, were the first to think about using sonar for medical diagnosis.  A “metal flaw detector” had been developed during WWII. In 1955 it occurred to Donald that he could use this technology “to detect flaws in women,” describes Dr. James Willocks in a 1996 article on ultrasound. Donald took two cars to the boilermaker’s research department, loaded with a “collection of lumps” such as recently-removed fibroids and ovarian cysts and a piece of steak, to experiment with.

When Life ran this article in 1965, more advanced “real-time” scanners that made fetal motion visible had just been produced by Siemens, in Germany. The “Vidoson” machines sold well in Europe, but not in the U.S.  American radiologists didn’t know how to “see” what they were seeing, accustomed as they were to interpreting static images. Likewise, “obstetricians were simply using the scanner probe as a torch to ‘look inside’ the uterus,” writes Dr. Joseph Woo.  They didn’t necessarily know what they were looking at, or why. 

The visualization technology did solve the newly-discovered “problem,” however, of a pregnant woman’s opacity, and seemed to have a “psychological” benefit.  At a 1978 conference in Belgium, R. Chef reflected on sonography’s start: “For almost ten years, many doctors, technicians and expectant mothers had the moving experience of being able to observe the living fetus. This seems to me to have been a psychological break-through. For the first time, the human eye pierced the 'black box' of the womb.”

In 1976 only 35% of U.S. hospitals used ultrasound for fetal dating, but by 1982, almost all did. The technology also migrated into obstetricians’ private offices and clinics. The fetus was becoming more visible.

Meanwhile the pregnant woman, in popular images, and the reality of pregnancy as a symbiosis, became more invisible.

Real-time sonography became technologically commonplace, and maybe the visual curiosity of seeing how the machine worked or how a sonogram related to a pregnant woman’s body became less compelling. The frame was cropped and the focus zoomed in on the fetus itself. This cropping creates a powerful illusion of fetal non-contingency and autonomy.  

The reproductive technology that Life presaged in 1965 mimics the arc of reproductive politics. Or, perhaps, the sonogram technology itself helped cause that arc to take shape, because the technology tends to crop out of view the reality that pregnancy is a symbiosis between a woman’s body and a fetus. And out of view, out of mind. As I've written, you get the strong sense that the pregnant woman is a nuisance third wheel in a pro-lifer's relationship to a fetus.

As sonograms evolved, the fetus became more meticulously visible, while the pregnant woman’s body—the incubator— was visually cropped from view. The idea that a doctor or parent couldn’t see the fetus became an implied problem as the years and technology progressed. The uterus should be penetrable, and the fetus visible.  

The upshot is that an in utero drama looks very ex utero and outer-space with ultrasound technology and the images it generates.

You’ve probably seen ultrasound pictures posted on Facebook. Rather than appearing deeply embedded in its mother’s body the fetus looks as if it’s an astronaut floating in deep, black space, tethered to the mothership (literally) by a lifeline.

Today, the cutting-edge technology is 3-D and 4-D real-time scans, first developed in their “stunning and convincing” detail (convincing of what is unclear) by the prototype Voluson scanner, in France.

These scanners take advantage of much faster computational speeds and lower computer technology costs. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been a “viable commercial proposition,” or energetically pursued.

As in the beginning, the diagnostic benefits of more meticulous fetal visualization aren’t entirely clear. A Journal of Perinatology article questions whether 3-D sonography is a “luxury or a necessity?” and concludes that it was “becoming a necessity” for “every modern perinatal unit.” As with any other technology, maybe a hospital possesses it as reassuring certification of its modernity. The diagnostic advantages themselves don’t seem all that impressive. They’re almost more aesthetic and photographic. They include “surface analysis of minor defects.” Writes Goldberg, the dazzling and stunning 3-D imagery was “still of limited value to the fetus,” but it does provide “exquisite detail of the fetal face, limbs and genitalia.”

Scores of manufacturers have encouraged the migration of sonogram images from hospital to Facebook display. Writes Dr. Woo, they’ve adopted an “unprecedented ‘profit marketing’ strategy to advertise to providers, and a ‘reverse marketing’ strategy [make the customer ask for the product] to advertise directly to consumers.”

Parenting and health magazines write about “reassurance scans” and “entertainment scans,” mostly for the “pleasure” of the parents, and the “attraction” of being able to look at your baby’s face prenatally, even if there’s no diagnostic reason for it.

Doctors and vendors emphasized, peculiarly, the 3-D image’s capacities to affect the mother’s emotions. An early proponent of the 3-D scan saw it as an “important catalyst for mothers to bond to their babies.” A 1996 study that found mothers had more “incentive” to endure pregnancy complications and “improved capacity to cope” when they saw 3-D images. Another study in 1996 reported “improved bonding,” which could incent mothers to modify harmful pregnancy behaviors, and an “early bond” with the fetus.

The technology is valuable as a tool for emotional transformation and manipulation. The sonogram-enabled bonding through visualization also implicitly minimizes the bonding that happens through all the physical, non-visual experiences of pregnancy. In other words, the bonding that happens because a fetus is in a living woman’s (human’s) body. This is a basic but easily obscured biological, human reality in reproductive politics today.

A parenting magazine might enthusiastically imagine a mother epiphanally seeing her baby’s face in utero, but this same use of quasi-diagnostic technology for emotional manipulation occurs coercively in abortion politics.  Anti-abortion forces in some states have legislated that women be forced to undergo transvaginal probes and look at ultrasound images before an abortion. The womb with a view cuts both ways.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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