Abortion and Technological Vision

It's been an eventful week on the abortion frontlines. After pro-life groups were banished from the Women's March in D.C. last Saturday—exposing the March as a thinly veiled means of enforcing progressive ideological conformity—the week began with newly minted President Trump signing an executive order banning the funding of international abortion, reinstating the Mexico City Policy as one of his first acts as president.

Later in the week, the group Live Action released a brutal sting revealing that Planned Parenthood doesn't provide any substantial prenatal care, despite its constant claims to the contrary. All of this culminating with the annual March for Life in Washington on Friday, which Vice President Mike Pence spoke at and Trump tweeted and made live statements in support of. An ostentatiously pro-life week for the new Trump administration, despite Never Trump critics' persistent assurances that the betrayal of pro-life Trump supporters was afoot.

The prominence of the issue in the national spotlight drew expected pro-abortion detractors out of the woodwork. The most heinous example of this was an asinine piece at The Atlantic which argued that the technology of the ultrasound has been used to dupe much of the public into believing in the "personhood" of the fetus.

Or at least, that was its initial strong claim. The article has since been edited and corrected multiple times to fix its numerous factual errors. The correction count now stands at four, though it had initially erroneously referred to John Kasich as the governor of Indiana for a fifth. "We regret the error," indeed. But do they regret their ideologically-driven publishing, fact-checking, and editorial practices? We can safely assume not.

The two most significant of the errors, both initially present in the secondary headline of the piece, were that the ultrasound had been used to fabricate a heartbeat and to mimic a response to stimuli when there was none. They have since been forced to issue corrections on both claims, which were central to the case being made. The author of the piece, Moira Weigel, had claimed there was "no heart to speak of" at 6 weeks, and hence no heartbeat (this is false, as the correction admits), and that fetuses had no reflexive responses to medical instruments at 12 weeks (this is false as another correction admits). Moving the goal posts, the article now simply claims that, though those reflexive actions occur in response to stimuli, they don't imply "sentience" or "susceptibility to pain."

Once you peel away all of the errors and retractions, the remaining argument is rather barren. The notion that scientific and medical journals don't classify unborn human life as a "fetus" until nine weeks, for example, is quite irrelevant, as no one on the pro-life side denies that unborn human life has developmental stages. What of it? Nothing about the empirical presence of distinct, unique human life is predicated on that life being a fetus rather than a zygote.

With its scientific case rapidly disintegrating in the light of scrutiny, one of the only arguments that remains is that the technology of the ultrasound allows us to envision the unborn child as a quasi-independent entity, free-floating in a kind of void, like Stanley Kubrick's Star Child, and thereby excludes the mother from our vision and thoughts. Though not explicitly stated, the author seems to suggest that this technology, while enabling us to see and empathize with the unborn, also enables us to un-see the mother; to exclude her from the frame.

Technology always influences and structures the manner in which we encounter reality. In the distance past, when our technologies were limited to clothes and primitive tools, such technology altered how we lived, interacted, and survived in harsh conditions. With the advent of writing tools and written languages, these technologies shaped communication and transmission of knowledge, as well as the manner in which human brains functioned. But technology didn't really fundamentally alter the way wee see until the 17th century. In this classic piece on the way technology shapes our metaphysics, Jonathan Pageau writes:

[I]t is only in the 17th century that humans engaged their eye into this process of supplement. It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye.

By peering into the depths of matter and the depths of space with artificial lenses, we encountered minuscule and macroscopic realities which distanced us from our common, earthly, everyday reality of medium-sized objects, particularly other humans. These technological advancements revolutionized how we understood and engaged with the world. For the better, we broadened our objective knowledge of the universe, but for worse, we alienated ourselves from what is most immediate, most important, most human. The more thoroughly immersed in these outer worlds we became, the more alien the human world became.

Does the ultrasound have an analogous alienating, perhaps even dehumanizing, effect in the way it presents to our eye the fetus while obscuring the mother? To put it bluntly: no.

Sure, it provides us with a window into a genuine realm of reality that was never accessible to our vision before, as with the telescope and the microscope. And in order to do that, all of these "lenses" necessarily limit our vision, excluding aspects of reality. But unlike the cellular, atomic, or cosmological realms, which transport us away from the human, the ultrasound takes us from one human realm to another. Indeed, the ultrasound, insofar as it aids us in discovering—or really remembering—the humanity of the unborn and the telos of the reproductive process, is a corrective to other sexual technologies that had resulted in us forgetting or denying them.

If our culture ever became so obsessed with ultrasounds and the unborn that it forgot mothers, that would, of course, be a tragic thing. As it stands, however, mothers are not systematically slaughtered in our culture, while the unborn are. Mothers are being forgotten—excluded from the frame—not at the expense of the unborn, but at the expense of non-mothers. The way that our culture does remove mothers from the frame is by denigrating the vocation of motherhood while exalting "strong, independent" women, via film, television, journalism, art, and politics. By celebrating their "choices" to cease being mothers by violently ending the life of their children, or to not become mothers in the first place. Or, if they are mothers, lauding only their capacity to simultaneously undertake various other meaningful tasks, particularly career-related, at the same time. This is the erasure of mothers; this is how our culture removes them from the frame.

The true Void isn't the space of the womb in which the unborn human, viewed through an ultrasound, awesomely seems to hover. The true Void is the empty spaces left behind in the wake of abortions and that in the barren loins of more and more women who are rejecting the call to motherhood (abetted by the men who are rejecting the call to fatherhood) for a life serving the whims of pleasure and capital.