Window on the Womb

Informed consent maintains a patient's dignity in medical care. It means telling the patient how an operation is done and what its risks are before he decides to undergo the operation. Informed consent treats the patient as a free and responsible agent. The most frequently performed operation in America today is abortion. Yet, strangely, some people are opposed to applying informed consent to abortion. Abortion activists have even lobbied to strike down informed consent laws. This is a sharp departure from the classical liberal tradition of treating the individual as a responsible agent. Why are abortion activists so illiberal on this issue? Informed consent in abortion would mean telling mothers and fathers the basic facts of pregnancy and fetal development before they decide whether to get an abortion. Why shouldn't they benefit from the most up-to-date medical facts, like any other patient does? For centuries, the child growing in its mother's womb was shrouded in mystery. But today medical technology has opened a window on the womb. One of the most exciting forms of technology is ultrasound. Using reflections of sound waves, ultrasound projects a moving picture of the baby wiggling and waving its arms inside the mother's uterus. Ultrasound has revealed that babies in the womb are much more aware of the outside world than anyone imagined. If a bright light is placed near the mother's abdomen, the baby inside is startled and turns away. But if a soft light is used, the baby is attracted and turns toward it. A loud buzzer makes the baby jump. But if a soft rattle is shaken, the baby takes its thumb out of its mouth and looks in the direction of the sound. A baby in the womb even learns to recognize the voice of its own mother. Ultrasound makes a fetus seem more human. In fact, the word "fetus" no longer seems fitting once you've seen a movie of that moving, responding little person. "Fetus" sounds too technical, too abstract. We instinctively call it baby. That's why abortion activists are adamantly opposed to informed consent. The practice of abortion depends on dehumanizing the fetus. It's just a pile of cells, we're told. Just fetal matter. But the fetus revealed by ultrasound is emphatically human. What happens when a mother and father see ultrasound movies of their baby? Let me tell you a true story. A young woman--I'll call her Brenda--discovered she was pregnant. The pregnancy was unplanned, and when Brenda announced it at the office, she was noticeably glum. A few weeks later, Brenda came bouncing into the office full of excitement. In her hand were ultrasound photos. Proudly she passed the photos around among her co-workers. "Do you want to see my baby?" "Look how big my baby is." Brenda had begun to bond with her baby, even before birth. Debates have raged in Congress over whether clinics should counsel mothers about abortion. I say let them give the facts about abortion. But let them give all the facts. Let clinics give mothers the most up-to-date information revealed by ultrasound--how babies respond to lights, to sounds, even to the sound of their mother's voice. In fact, I have an idea. Why don't we require that every mother who visits a clinic sees an ultrasound of her baby before she decides whether to have an abortion. I wonder: How many would have the heart to carry it through?


Chuck Colson


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