Article Dec 11, 2014

How ultrasound-on-a-chip will transform abortion

Technological innovations often have broad effects that could have never been forseen. Take, for example, the invention of the printing press by German printer Johannes Gutenberg. A forward-thinking futurist living in 1450 might have predicted the way that the printed word would change culture. But could they have predicted that it would lead to eyeglasses?

As Steven Johnson explains in his recent book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles in Europe since the new practice of reading made people realize they were farsighted.

Similarly, few people could have foreseen that the invention of sonogram technology would change birth ratios around the globe. But the ability to identify the sex of a child in utero made it easier for cultures that have a preference for boys to identify and abort baby girls. The result is that in some areas of China there are now 120 boys for every 100 girls.

A radical new innovation in sonogram technology may have similar effects. Entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg is working on a medical imaging device that’s nearly “as cheap as a stethoscope” and will “make doctors 100 times as effective.” According to MIT Technology Review, Most ultrasound machines use small crystals or ceramics to generate and receive sound waves. But these have to be carefully wired together, then attached via cables to a separate box to process the signals.

This new technology would etch ultrasound emitters directly onto a semiconductor wafer, alongside circuits and processors. The result: ultrasound on a chip.

The chips could be used in devices about the size of a smartphone to create extremely detailed 3D images of body parts, such as during a fetal exam. Rothberg says his first goal will be to market an imaging system cheap enough to be used even in the poorest corners of the world.

What would be the result of having a sonogram at every local pharmacy in the U.S. or in the hands of every midwife in India?

Since the mid-1990s pro-lifers have pressed state legislatures to require abortion clinics to give women an ultrasounds before an abortion can be performed. Currently, 23 states regulate the provision of ultrasound by abortion providers.  Whether this effectively reduces abortions, though, is in dispute. One study published earlier this year found that voluntarily viewing the ultrasound image may contribute to a small proportion of women with medium or low decision certainty deciding to continue the pregnancy, though such viewing does not alter decisions of the large majority of women who are certain about their decision to abort.

But one likely effect of ultrasounds-on-a-chip will likely have one obvious effect.

As Rothberg says, “When I have thousands of these [3-D ultrasound] images, I think it will become better than a human in saying ‘Does this kid have Down syndrome, or a cleft lip?’ And when people are pressed for time it will be superhuman. I will make a technician able to do this work.”

The chilling implication is that having clear inexpensive ultrasound images will make it easier to identify “problem children”—those who have Down syndrome, birth defects, or even just a Y chromosome—so that they can be aborted.

Rothberg also says his first goal will be to market an imaging system cheap enough to be used even in the poorest corners of the world. In many ways this will be a great boon to these areas since ultrasound can be used to determine how dehydrated a child is, whether an injured person requires surgery, or whether a person has a punctured lung.

As Dr. Janice Bouhton notes, it is much cheaper to get an obstetrical ultrasound in India than in the US, but still very expensive in comparison to overall cost of living. Yet in India conservative estimates of the number of female fetuses aborted was about 250,000 per year. How high will those numbers be when there is even greater access to cheaper ultrasound imagery?

Boughton also says that women who can’t afford an abortion often take pills or poisons to end their pregnancy, risking not only their own health but the health of their baby should it survive. Now imagine what happens when we combine cheap, ultrasound-on-a-chip with cheap over-the-counter abortifacients.

Soon abortion clinics will be all but obsolete. But it won’t be because abortions have ended; it will be because you won’t need to go to a clinic when you can get everything you need —a pregnancy test, sonogram, and abortifacient — at your local Walgreen’s pharmacy.   

Technology is outpacing both the law and culture in changing the issue of abortion. How are we pro-lifers going to prepare for what comes next? Can we find ways to innovate our thinking and strategies in order to meet the new challenges that are coming?

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