Foetus: From the Sensory to the Scan

As a physical state, the stages of pregnancy follow a fairly consistent form. Yet maternal perceptions of pregnancy can vary enormously across time and location. As Barbara Duden comments in Disembodying Women: Perspectives on pregnancy and the Unborn: ‘over time, woman and body do not remain the same’; we cannot feel the same as our distant counterparts because our bodies have no ‘empirical equivalent’ to theirs. I’m currently completing a chapter for a forthcoming book on perceptions of pregnancy, edited by Jennifer Evans and Ciara Meehan, and one of the aspects I find fascinating is the way that technologies of conception have entirely changed emotional responses to pregnancy.

A powerful way to illustrate this is through Anna Barbauld’s poem To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible (published 1825, probably written at the end of the 18th century). The foetus that Barbauld described in her poem below was invisible, mysterious, and unknown. This ‘stranger guest’ was a captive imprisoned in her mother’s nurturing though fearful body, burdened with the increasing physical and emotional weight of the foetus. I love this poem, so lively, so touching, so yearning, and so illuminating of maternal pregnant sensibilities in the past.

To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible (By Anna Laetitia Barbauld 1743–1825)

Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow

For many a moon their full perfection wait,—

Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go

Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.

What powers lie folded in thy curious frame,—

Senses from objects locked, and mind from thought!

How little canst thou guess thy lofty claim

To grasp at all the worlds the Almighty wrought!

And see, the genial season’s warmth to share,

Fresh younglings shoot, and opening roses glow!

Swarms of new life exulting fill the air,—

Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow!

For thee the nurse prepares her lulling songs,

The eager matrons count the lingering day;

But far the most thy anxious parent longs

On thy soft cheek a mother’s kiss to lay.

She only asks to lay her burden down,

That her glad arms that burden may resume;

And nature’s sharpest pangs her wishes crown,

That free thee living from thy living tomb.

She longs to fold to her maternal breast

Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;

To see and to salute the stranger guest,

Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.

Come, reap thy rich inheritance of love!

Bask in the fondness of a Mother’s eye!

Nor wit nor eloquence her heart shall move

Like the first accents of thy feeble cry.

Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!

Launch on the living world, and spring to light!

Nature for thee displays her various stores,

Opens her thousand inlets of delight.

If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,

With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,

Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,

Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.[1]

Rachel Bowlby (A Child of One’s Own) shows that technologies of conception shape perceptions of the foetus, and, therefore, pregnancy. We are used to seeing the foetus within the womb thanks to ultrasound scans offered twice during pregnancy, the first usually around 8 to 12 weeks. The baby is visible in a moving image on a screen and in a still photograph produced from the same scan as a physical object and memento. However, this is a very recent phenomenon. It was the 1880s when physicians first began to use the recently invented stethoscope to listen to the baby’s heart in the womb, the end of the 19th century when X-rays were used to see a six-month old embryo in the womb, and it was not until the late 1970s in Britain that ultrasound was first used to produce an image of the baby before birth.[2] The implications of this are significant, providing information about a baby which was previously hidden until its birth; the most obvious example of this is that the baby’s sex can be known in advance.[3]

N0019383 Ultrasound scan, normal 24 weeks gestation

In Bowlby’s astute words, ultrasound has changed ‘the view of pregnancy; it makes the foetus more of a recognizable soon-to-be baby, and less of a hidden, interior being perceptible only through its creeping movements’.[4] These ‘creeping movements’ were the sensations first felt at the quickening (around three months) and continued through pregnancy to be joined by weightier shifts and painful jolts as the foetus moved and kicked. Indeed, Barbara Duden reminds us that the senses were the only means by which women in the past could report on their experiences of the unseen or the ‘sensorium’ of what went on inside them.[5] Such movements or, more sinisterly, the lack of movements were the primary indication of foetal well-being, thus they also occasioned maternal emotions. This makes the vocabulary of pregnancy all the more important to closely scrutinise in terms of an emotional discourse.

Let me return to Barbauld’s poem to demonstrate this connection between the different senses in pregnancy. I have underlined words and phrases which illustrate the uncertainty of pregnancy (which you can see more about in this presentation) partly due to the invisibility of the foetus. Barbauld mentions the anxiety of pregnancy, the apprehension associated with the passage of time, the fear of pain of childbirth, and the unborn child as an unknown quantity perceived only through the senses. The phrase ‘Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’ conveys in beautiful form the sentiment of many mothers.

As Bowlby points out, technology has removed this aspect of pregnancy from our grasp since the advent of foetal scans has removed ‘a significant element of uncertainty – or possibility’.[6] Of course, these new ways of visualising our babies does not eradicate all anxieties; perhaps it simply replaces them with others since often scans are there to detect abnormalities.

[1] I am indebted to Sara Read for alerting me to this poem.

[2] Developed in the 1950s, ultrasound technology came to public attention with the first IVF baby in England, in 1978. Rachel Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories, Oxford 2013.

[3] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, pp. 20-21.

[4] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, p. 22.

[5] Duden, Disembodying Women, p. 8.

[6] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, p. 21.

Image: N0019383 Credit Wellcome Photo Library, Wellcome Images Ultrasound image, lateral of head and upper chest  of normal 24 week fetus  Collection: Wellcome Images
Library reference no.: NMSB