Technology Improvements Change Roe v. Wade Debate

Science often lags behind in discovering the truth. The truth has always been there, but it may take time for scientists to learn that truth. There is no better example of this than the debate over when life begins.

In 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), the scientific technology of ultrasound was poorly developed. Pro-abortion activists were able to convince most people that life didn’t begin until a baby was born. Ultrasound was still in its infancy and couldn’t be relied upon to show life in the womb. Justice Harry Blackman was able to say that at that “point in the development of man’s knowledge,” there was simply no consensus about when life begins. In other words, the fetus could not be said with any certainty to be alive and therefore wasn’t worthy of legal protection.

As I look back on my own medical education, which began in 1975, I was taught by my medical school faculty that life begins at conception. There was no debate about that. We were taught that once conception happened, the only thing needed for the next nine months was a womb that provided nourishment and protection. We didn’t need a fancy ultrasound to tell us a baby was growing in the mother’s womb. The only debate concerned the morality of doctors aborting that baby, no matter when it occurred.

But the ambiguity of the viability of those growing cells in the womb allowed liberals to justify abortion on the grounds that “it isn’t really a baby.”

No more. Science has now caught up to the truth. New ultrasound technology is so good it gives us 3D images of that growing baby. Grazie Pozon Christie is a diagnostic radiologist who shares her experiences with modern ultrasound in The Wall Street Journal. This is especially important given that the U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which challenges a new Mississippi law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks. Dr. Christie has written an amicus brief urging the justices to rethink Roe, a case premised on a claim about science that is obsolete. She is joined by two other female physicians, a neonatologist and an obstetrician, who also value their youngest patients, believing that whether inside their mothers or born, premature or full term, they are worthy of respect and protection.

Dr. Christie tells us the first ultrasound machines were introduced in 1958. The machines were enormous, the images rudimentary. It wasn’t until the late 1970s (after the Roe decision) that fetal ultrasound became widely available, with increasingly detailed images of recognizably human babies. Black-and-white ultrasound images are now found on refrigerator doors of expectant parents across America. New 3D images have put a human face on the person once dehumanized as a mere clump of cells.

Perfectly apparent now to the justices sitting on today’s SCOTUS, as well as the public, are the liveliness and humanity of babies at 15 weeks gestation – the age at which Mississippi proposes to protect them from elective termination. Dr. Christie tells us these fetuses on average are 6.4 inches long and weigh 4.1 ounces. They have the proportions of a newborn – seemingly all head and rounded belly. The major organs are formed and functioning, and although the child receives nutrients and oxygen through the mother’s umbilical cord, the fetal digestive, urinary and respiratory systems are practicing for life outside the womb.

The sex of the child is easy to discern by this point. The baby swallows and even breathes, filling the lungs with amniotic fluid and expelling it. The heart is fully formed, its four chambers working hard, with the delicate valves opening and closing. A healthy baby at 15 weeks is an active baby. Unless the child is asleep, kicking and arm-waving are commonly seen during ultrasound evaluations. The fetal spine is a marvel of intricacy, and it is most often gently curved as the fetus rests against the mother’s uterine wall.

At 15 weeks, the brain’s frontal lobes, ventricles, and thalamus fill the oval-shaped skull. The baby’s profile is endearing in its petite perfection: gently sloping nose, distinct upper and lower lips, eyes that open and close. With the advent of 3D ultrasound, we can now see the fetal face in all its detail.

It is undeniable that a human baby is growing in the womb of a mother at 15 weeks gestation and the justices of the SCOTUS must face that reality. It is no longer acceptable for them to take the same view as Justice Blackman did in 1973. To paraphrase his words today, “we have arrived at a much different point in the development of man’s knowledge about life in utero.” Dr. Christie says, “The Supreme Court’s judgement should reflect that advancement and put an end to the casual cruelty of unfettered abortion.” I certainly agree.