Baby, baby: The New York Times faces a ghost in the stylebook

Baby1One rarely gets to see a religion ghost hiding in the details of a newspaper’s all-powerful manual of language, style and grammar. But there one was, drifting between the lines of a New York Times article on the hot new shops that, for a few hundred dollars, allow a woman to buy sepia-toned ultrasound digital prints of her unborn child to give to family members and friends — by hand or email.

Hidden in that last sentence is the ghost — the words “unborn child.” Most newspapers follow stylebooks that call for the use of the more clinical, neutral word “fetus.” The assumption, of course, is that this highly organized mass of tissue is not an “unborn child” or “baby” unless the mother, for religious reasons, chooses to say that it is.

Which brings us to a winsome New York Times feature by Marc Santora that opens with a mother-to-be, Limor Fronimos, visiting an establishment called A Peek in the Pod. (Tip of the hat to Catholic uberblogger Amy Welborn for noticing this.) Near the end of the story, sonographer Narda Johnson is working to get the right pose:

When the baby would not cooperate, choosing instead to shield herself with tiny hands from the prenatal equivalent of paparazzi, Ms. Johnson turned to a trick she picked up during the 20 years she has performed ultrasounds in doctors’ offices.

She gave the mother chocolate.

“It goes straight to the baby,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s a sugar rush.”

Sure enough, the image on the screen soon became clearer, and a big smile could be discerned.

And there you have it. The URL at the Times includes a “17fetus.html” reference, but by this point in the story it was impossible to use any term other than “baby.” Read the whole article and try to edit in the term “fetus” for the word “baby” in all of the paragraphs that are not direct quotations. It just doesn’t work.

Which is why it was a tense moment in the abortion media wars when General Electric began trying to advertise this remarkably clear 4D ultrasound imaging system. Were these ads anti-abortion hate speech? After all, religious conservatives — take columnist Cal Thomas, for example — were going to write all kinds of things, like this:

The clarity of the image resembles a high quality photograph. Everyone who sees such a picture will find it extremely difficult to regard the image as anything but that of a baby; not a “fetus,” not a “product of conception,” not disembodied tissue. The hands move. So does the head. Does the baby’s status change because the parents love him or her and want their child to be delivered safely so they can hold in their arms what the mother now holds in her womb? Or does the child inherit an intrinsic right to life separate from what politicians, lawyers, judges and even the woman herself might think?

Words matter and, in Oprah America, photographs matter even more.

It will be interesting to see how other newspapers cope with this issue. Is this another case where the New York Times will set the new standard?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Rich Tatum

    Indeed. My wife and I, who recently enjoyed the addition of a little girl to our family, went to a little strip mall in Naperville where we got our 3d-ultrasound pictures made before her arrival. In at least one instance, the images have made one of Jennifer’s friends begin to rethink her position on abortion. It seems, at least with fetuses and babies, it’s UNfamiliarity that breeds contempt.



  • Marla

    Hope at last!

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Hey, who cares if these machines might damage the child so long as it converts a few people to the “pro-life” camp eh?

  • tmatt

    Jason actually makes a great point, one that is at the heart of this New York Times report. Pro-life activists would, of course, oppose any abuse of this technology that would hurt the unborn child. Of course, the parents are CHOOSING to do this vanity act. They are pro-choice when it comes to the photo technology.

  • Sean Gallagher

    I wonder if folks who support choice (ahem, abortion) will try to turn the debate to the issue of personhood? They might argue that, yes, what you’re seeing is a baby. But is he or she a person which, thus, has rights?

  • Rich Tatum

    As I understand it, the ultrasound hardware is the same as plain old-fashioned ultrasound. The difference is the addition of a computer and software to interpolate, analyze, and filter the noise from the “smoke-o-grams” that are generated by the machine.

    If ultrasound is harmful to the baby, this is the first I heard of it.


  • Jason Pitzl-Waters


    Actually the FDA do have concerns about this new procedure…

    Here is a relevant section from the FDA report (Feb 2004):

    Mel Stratmeyer, Ph.D., in the FDA’s Office of Science and Technology, says that most animal studies have not identified any fetal harm with low-dose ultrasound exposure.

    “But the issue of keepsake videos has to be that if there’s even a possibility of potential risk, why take the chance?” Stratmeyer says. Animal studies have been performed during the last 30 years to investigate the effects of the procedure on a fetus, due to the increased use of obstetrical ultrasound in the 1970s. Human studies, however, are not feasible for the same reason that experts are cautious about casual ultrasound: It’s too risky to subject unborn babies to any unknown effects.

    “The problem with experimental research,” Stratmeyer says, “is that you really need both animal and human studies to make more predictable outcomes.” He adds that as technology advances and becomes more complex, the potential for physical effects to be identified in the future also increases.

    However, a few studies, Stratmeyer says, suggest that exposure to diagnostic ultrasound during pregnancy may have an effect on human development, such as delayed speech in children.

    Danica Marinac-Dabic, M.D., an epidemiologist in the FDA’s Office of Surveillance and Biometrics, says that the most consistent finding in the recent literature is a potential association between prenatal ultrasound exposure and subsequent left-handedness, especially among boys. At least three large follow-up studies involving thousands of school-age children in Sweden and Norway suggested such an association.

    “Since ultrasound examinations in these studies took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” says Marinac-Dabic, “and the fact that modern ultrasound equipment is capable of producing approximately eight times higher intensities than equipment used a decade ago, we continue to study the possible long-term effects of prenatal ultrasound in both animal and human epidemiologic studies.”

  • Rich Tatum


    Thanks for the links, those were an interesting and persuasive read. But it still seems the data are inconclusive, though *anything* in excess is potentially harmful for babies in utero–even excessive time in a bath, for instance.

    As it is, I’m grateful we only spent 15 minutes or so getting images. And we took the images to my wife’s obstetrician, as well, in case there were any diagnostic issues that would be revealed.



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