Are We Robbing Our Fetuses of a Proper Fetushood?


Researchers in the UK have discovered that fetuses don’t feel pain prior to 24 weeks. This has implications for the abortion debate; if and when to do them and whether anesthesia should be mandated. I think it’s reassuring to hear from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that the womb has a “sedating” effect on the fetus. And not all that surprising. But this study also got me thinking about how technology shapes the way we think of our developing fetuses.

And it reminded me that what’s inside you now is not a small baby, but a baby-in-progress. A fetus, in other words. But that can be hard. We are told what our “baby” is doing from week one. The embryo has barely busted out of the blastocyst and already “your baby” is growing in leaps and bounds!

Technology shapes the way we experience our pregnancies in lots of ways: We learn we’re pregnant before a period is even missed. It’s not our body that gives us signs of pregnancy, but a small stick. We can listen to, look at and photograph our fetuses. Sonographers measure and assess. Genetic testers swoop in. We have a “little boy” or “big girl.” All of this encourages us to project human attributes onto a developing fetus. And we’re ripe for this. After deciding to have children and hoping for a pregnancy, who can blame a woman for bonding with “her baby” from day one? Even if it is a tailed prawn.

It can be easy to dog on technology, but it’s not so simple. I had two pregnancies and took different approaches: I did an amnio for one but not for the other. And I must say, opting out of technology didn’t change much. The fact is: technology is here. Even if you “opt out,” you still have to deal with it. You’re just saying no to information instead of yes: the sex, the health, the size, the genetics. I’m not saying you should (or should not) get an amnio or find out the sex. Just that technology informs our pregnancies no matter what we choose!

When I first saw the attached video of a 28-week-old fetus crying after being freaked out by a loud burst of sound, I was reminded just how true this is. It’s a pretty creepy video, and I almost hesitate to put it here. Now we all have to worry about UPSETTING THE FETUS! But this fetus might be old enough to survive. This is clearly not the feel-no-pain fetus of < 24 weeks. Plus, this fetus was being massively annoyed by pesky researchers!

The environment in the womb is actually really loud. There’s a boom box of digestion and heartbeats in there. When the baby is born he or she will like LOUD sounds. But they’ll need to be flowing and rhythmic and consistent. A startling sound — such as those made by the numerous car alarms on my wretched city block — will indeed make a baby cry. In fact, maybe it was a car alarm that was used to make this fetus cry. The poor thing looks like I do when one goes off… but there I go, projecting.