“Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” It’s the last defense of cheating husbands, Donald Trump’s press secretary, and a strange piece in the Atlantic, “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea that a Fetus Is a Person” (this title, originally attached to the piece, was altered after publication). If a face, a gesture, or the flutter of a heartbeat engenders empathy in a doctor or a parent, warns author Moira Weigel, that empathy should be squelched. The humanity a sonogram seems to convey is only an optical illusion.
Weigel is wary of an ultrasound’s ability to undermine a woman’s individual choice and refute her understanding of her own pregnancy. This worry isn’t as farfetched as it might sound. Consider the checkered history of doctors’ attempts to interpret women’s bodies: The Halsted mastectomy mutilated women without protecting them from breast cancer, as the inventor brushed off women’s concerns and questions; and doctors still frequently dismiss women’s descriptions of pain as hysteria, offering weaker medication than they prescribe to men with comparable conditions.
As for sonograms, they weren’t designed to diagnose moral worth, and even their representations of physical reality can be imprecise. One OB-GYN quoted in Weigel’s article argues that the heartbeats sonograms reveal are fundamentally misleading:
Diane Horvath Cosper, an OB-GYN who works for Physicians for Reproductive Health in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. points out that, as a benchmark, the heartbeat is “kind of arbitrary.” “Two days before we couldn’t see the activity,” Cosper says, “but the cells were there, and they already had that contractile activity.” What the appearance of the flicker on the ultrasound shows is not a change of state but a threshold of the imaging technology.
Cosper is right that it’s bizarre to base our moral calculus and our laws on the precision of our medical instruments. If we develop a finer sonogram, and move up the date of a detectable heartbeat, the inventor of this new instrument won’t have created a new channel for personhood to be infused into babies, one that flows a little straighter and shorter and reaches them two days earlier.
So, what can we do when we’re forced to view the world through crude tools, ones that we know blind and bias us? If we feel stymied by the imprecision of sonograms and other tools for looking inside the bodies of others, we should feel at least as frightened by the fallibility of our own wills, and the unreliable view they give us of the souls of others.
Weigel gestures at this weakness of our moral vision when she implies that the baby and the mother are in a zero-sum game for sympathy. She sees the prominence of ultrasounds as a threat to women: “The framing of the ultrasound image was notable for what it excluded: the woman. In order to make the fetus visible, it made her disappear.”
It should be possible to care for both the baby and the mother at once. But Weigel is right that, just as a microscope is unable to focus at more than one depth of field simultaneously, people can feel stymied about how to see and love more than one person. Remove mother or child from our field of view, and we waver about how to care for both, tempted to see only one, and escape the pressure of conflicting duties.
As a Catholic, I try to pray to see through the eyes of God, who sees us fully and always looks at us with love. And, when I don’t seem to be getting to saintliness quite fast enough to be of use to the other people in my life, I pray that when my vision is limited, God lets me in on what He can see, even if I can’t quite understand how He can see it. I can take on faith that there are no true zero-sum claims on my duty, even if I don’t see the third way God prepares for me to offer love to a mother and her unexpected child, or two friends in conflict, or a couple considering divorce. I can stumble forward, trusting that God is never calling me to offer violence to either of the people yoked together.
But while I’m praying for my vision to be sharpened and to look with the eyes of love, I try to be aware that my own idea of perfect vision may itself be flawed. I can’t build an ultrasound or a microscope that can see things that are arbitrarily small—and that impossibility isn’t just a limit, it reveals something about the structure of light. Microscopes are diffraction limited, dependent on the wavelength of light used to illuminate the object being viewed. Their weaknesses are the fruit of the ordering of the world.
G. K. Chesterton, in his essay “In Defence of Baby Worship,” argued that our inability to see clearly at the scale of mother and child simultaneously illuminated another part of the beauty of creation:
The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.
The headache we feel at the whipsawing change of focus from mother to child, from shadowy ultrasound to solid woman, isn’t just a reflection of our own weakness. Our vision is strained because we’re looking at something wondrous, the everyday miracle of the beginning of life.