I’m not usually a “god” person but the first time I saw a 4D* scan of my unborn daughter I started to feel like something else was going on in the universe. Just 12 weeks after conception I could make out the two hemispheres of her brain and watch her suck her thumb. My mom said the barely post-zygotic life form definitely had my grandfather’s brow line. Anti-abortion arguments suddenly became something I was willing to consider: although this was something my partner and I had created together, it was nothing any person could create with 3D printers or tiny Legos. Some other force was guiding its construction and it was difficult to attribute that force entirely to nature, as I do with most god-related questions.


Doctors have used sonar-like sound waves to image fetal development for decades — ultrasound is typically used to determine gender, measure body parts, and view a baby’s first movements. GE’s Voluson E8 scanner is a beast of a machine that’s built to capture fetal development with unprecedented detail. An ultrasound wand is attached to a computer, monitor, and extended keyboard with backlit buttons that say funny things like “4D” and “3D” or just a pictogram of a woman’s naked midriff. Eight glowing sliders, nine rotary encoders, and a built-in touchscreen are reminiscent of a tricked-out MIDI controller. It looks simple enough that a child could use it, but trained nurse-technicians and doctors are the only ones legally qualified to assess the resulting images for possible fetal defects. A dark spot on a fetal belly might not look like much to a parent, but “anechoic” areas like these can be a sign of backed-up fecal matter in a developing intestine. We can assume that GE developed the Voluson line to improve prenatal health care, but no matter how clinical the operator might be, it’s still the first photograph in the history of the human being in question — and that makes it something of an emotional tool as well. Where my parents only had a ghostly 2D prenatal view of me in the early ‘80s, my partner and I are able to look our fetus in the eye while she’s still swimming in amniotic fluid.