The first time I saw one of the new 3-D ultrasounds of a fetus in utero, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking at. It wasn’t anything like the black-and-white images I was used to seeing. It looked otherworldly, like we’d finally made contact with a planet we’ve always wanted to reach. In part it was the color, that glowing shade of amber that doesn’t suggest anything medical or technological. It calls to mind something almost ancient, something that suggests the beginning of all things. It reminded me, both in color and somehow in meaning, of the earliest photographs of the bog people of Northern Europe, a phenomenon that had absorbed my attention when I was very young. Those ancient and particular faces, those people you could easily have picked out of a crowd, buried deep in the peat for more than 2,000 years, keeping their secrets, slumbering. When farmers cutting turf began discovering them in the 1950s, they were so perfectly preserved that the men assumed they had uncovered the remains of very recent murder victims, not the bodies of people who had lived before the time of Christ. And that was the shocking thing about the bog people: They were so clearly like us, so obviously human and individual.
These sonograms are so richly detailed that many expectant mothers pay to have one made in a shopping-mall studio, much in the spirit in which they might bring the baby to a portrait studio. They are one thing and one thing only: baby pictures. Had they been available when I was pregnant, I would definitely have wanted one. When you’re pregnant, you are desperate to make contact. You know he’s real because of the changes in your own body; eventually you start to feel his. The first kicks are startling and exciting, but even once they progress so far that you can see an actual foot glancing across your belly and then disappearing again, he’s still a mystery, still engaged in his private work, floating in the aquatic chamber within you, more in touch with the forces that brought him here than with life as it is lived on the other side.
For a long time, these images made me anxious. They are proof that what grows within a pregnant woman’s body is a human being, living and unfolding according to a timetable that has existed as long as we have. Obviously, it would take a profound act of violence to remove him from his quiet world and destroy him.