Medical sonography, in which very high-frequency sound waves are bounced off internal organs to gather information about their shape and density, was first used to create images of a fetus in utero in 1955, using machinery built to detect flaws in industrial metal. Often called ultrasound, it has been incorporated into the routine practice of obstetrics and widely used as a noninvasive diagnostic and monitoring technology in pregnancy since the 1970s. Physicians have used sonography to assess fetal development and determine either the birth due date or the appropriate method for abortion; to detect gross anatomical abnormalities, usually untreatable; to establish and tighten definitions of "normality" in fetuses; and by the 1990s, to provide visualization for invasive monitoring and therapies such as amniocentesis and fetal surgery. In the United States by the late 1990s, many physicians also claimed that sonography provided the psychological benefits of reassuring parents that the fetus was healthy and providing an opportunity for "bonding" with the fetus. In some countries, such as India and China, in which it is financially or legally unfeasible to raise many children and boys are valued strongly over girls, ultrasound has frequently been used to identify female fetuses, which are then aborted.

Ultrasound safety has not been confirmed through large-scale medical trials; it has been assumed to be safe because there has been no evidence of harm after widespread use. However, a 1993 study also concluded that the use of ultrasound in routine pregnancies did not improve outcomes. Despite these results, the use of ultrasound during pregnancy is almost universal at the beginning of the twenty-first century in most of North American and Western Europe, and quite common in other places as well.

Some feminists have raised concerns about sonography's role in medicalizing reproduction, pointing out that evidence based on women's experiences of pregnancy (such as a woman's sense of her fetus's health and growth as indicated by its movements) is usually dismissed by doctors in favor of ultrasound images, and that ultrasound is yet another mode of surveillance of women's bodies by those in positions of power. Feminists have also noted that in the United States, ultrasound images have been popularized by anti-abortion activists, who manipulate, interpret, and publicize the images to promote the idea that fetuses really are just like babies, and should be protected as such. On the other hand, anthropologists have observed that in the United States and Canada, pregnant women and their partners often enjoy viewing ultrasound images, sharing them with family and friends as prebirth "baby pictures," and appreciate what they perceive to be the psychological benefits of visualizing their fetuses. In the United States, images of fetuses are viewed by the general public as well, in advertising that promotes consumption in the name of fetal safety and comfort.

Ultrasound carries very different meanings depending on the cultural context in which it is being used. In contrast to the United States and Canada, in Greece, where ultrasound is used even more heavily, women, their partners, and their doctors see it as part of a package of technologies and practices necessary to having a desirable "modern" pregnancy. The uses and meanings of ultrasound have been culturally shaped in many different ways; but in every place where it is widely used, it has offered the possibility of altering understandings of pregnancy, the fetus, and the role of physicians and technology in reproduction.

See also: Conception and Birth; Obstetrics and Midwifery; Pediatrics.


Duden, Barbara. 1993. Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Farquhar, Dion. 1996. The Other Machine: Discourse and Reproductive Technologies. New York: Routledge.

Saetnan, Ann Rudinow, Nelly Oudshoorn, and Marta Stefania Maria Kirejczyk. 2000. Bodies of Technology : Women's Involvement with Reproductive Medicine. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Taylor, Janelle S. 1998. "Image of Contradiction: Obstetrical Ultrasound in American Culture." In Reproducing Reproduction: Kinship, Power, and Technological Innovation, ed. Sarah Franklin and Helena Ragoné. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.