May 9, 2011 Print

Technology on Our Side

by Dawn McBane

Ultrasound and ethical stem-cell advances may point to a pro-life future.

Nearly 40 years after abortion became legal in this country, and more than a decade after embryonic stem-cell research was touted as the next big thing in regenerative medicine, why are more people shying away from these options?

Denise Burke, vice president for legal affairs at Americans United for Life, says two phenomena are at work.

“Ultrasound technology and stunning advances in the treatment of more than 70 diseases and conditions using ethical forms of stem-cell research have been very powerful tools that have helped shape thinking in this country,” she says.

Even as Congress pushes for increased funding for abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, the American public is moving in the opposite direction.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that people across generations want to see fewer abortions. Among those in the 18-29 age range, the view that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances” has gone up 9 percentage points — from 14 to 23 percent — since the early ’90s.

Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life of America, says as ultrasound technology becomes more widely available, it’s making a difference in how young people view the issue of life. In fact, the younger generation has never been as pro-life as it is today. 

“Ultrasound technology has played a big part in helping to make this generation pro-life,” she says. “When you speak to women who had abortions in the 1970s and ’80s, they will tell you that the abortionist told them their baby was simply a blob of tissue.”

Today, abortionists may still try to use that old rhetoric, but thanks to technological advances, a girl can go online and within minutes see how her child is developing. “They can no longer deny that the unborn child is a baby,” Hawkins says.

Ultrasound technology has forced the pro-abortion movement to shift its talking points from “It’s not a baby or human” to “It’s not a person.”

This technology provides a concrete example of what the pro-life movement has always known:  that a pregnant woman is carrying a human life.  Since pro-abortionists can no longer deny this reality, they hold on to the flimsy argument that because of it’s location and stage of development, that this pre-born life is somehow not deserving of the respect and protection that we give to other humans.
Significant impact
First developed in the 1960s, ultrasound machines became widespread in the 1980s.

Ultrasound technology is an imaging technique that uses a probe to transmit high high frequency sound waves into the body that return to form a two or three-dimensional image on the machine.  This window into the uterus, and the developing baby, has revolutionized the care pregnant women receive.

According to the Family Research Council’s compilation of Pregnancy Resource Center Service Results, “no aspect of the changes in the pregnancy care movement has had more significant impact than the addition and enhancement of ultrasound technology.”

In 2004, Focus on the Family added a powerful new outreach called the Option Ultrasound Program (OUP). OUP provides grants to qualifying pregnancy centers to enable them to convert to medical clinics, to obtain ultrasound equipment and to train medical staff.

“In six short years, Option Ultrasound has seen 479 placements of ultrasound machines or top-quality sonography trainings in 49 states and one international placement in Romania that have enhanced maternal and fetal health,” says Kelly Rosati, senior director of OUP. “The potential number of women who chose to carry their babies to term after viewing an ultrasound could be as high as 81,000.”

By allowing women to make an educated and informed decision, “ultrasound has been an irreplaceable tool that has helped women have a window into their womb and bond with their preborn children,” Rosati says.

Focus on the Family collects stories of women and babies whose lives were changed forever. Venetta from Montana says: “When I saw my baby for the first time, she looked just like a precious little Teddy Graham. I fell in love right then. ‘It’ was real now, and I was excited to see there was a tiny little person in there. After the ultrasound, instead of wanting anything but a baby, I wanted nothing but my baby.”

Looking down the road, technology may continue to be one of the best tools for advancing a pro-life message. As Rosati explains, “Ultrasound has been a window to the womb. It has helped cut through the fog of misleading information regarding choice and autonomy.”

And, ultrasound gives women the truth: Abortion involves two people, not just one.

Stem-cell research
Technology is also revealing the truth when it comes to stem-cell research. When embryonic stem cells were first isolated in the late 1990s, researchers touted them as the next big thing in the world of regenerative medicine. 

As the research has unfolded in the last decade, just the opposite has taken place. Despite the continued push by some researchers and politicians, the reality is that life-destroying embryonic stem-cell research continues to be a dead end. 

The unpredictable, tumor-forming nature of embryonic stem cells continues to be a roadblock for researchers. Adult stem cells, which are ethically derived from a variety of life-affirming sources, have proven to be the real answer to many diseases. 

These two predominant types of stem cell research are radically different in the way they work.  In order to gather embryonic stem cells, the cells must be collected from a young human embryo.  The process of collecting these cells always results in the destruction of that young human life. 

On the contrary, adult stem cells require no such killing of life.  Better termed “non-embryonic” stem cells, adult stem cells can be gathered from a variety of different sources including bone marrow, blood, fat tissue, nasal cavity tissue, and even umbilical cord blood.

To date, more than 70 diseases or conditions — including cancer, lupus, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, sickle-cell anemia and spinal-cord injuries — have been successfully treated using adult stem cells.

The hopes for embryonic stem-cell research came to a screeching halt in 2007 when researchers discovered a way to take ordinary body cells (like a skin cell) and transform them into embryonic-like stem cells. Now, research can be done on these induced pluripotent cells — which act like embryonic cells — without destroying life. 

As Wesley J. Smith, senior fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute, says, these “advances have, for now, defanged the controversy because the idea of embryonic stem cells being ‘the only hope’ is clearly false.”

As technology continues to change hearts and minds, it also is influencing legislation across the country. Burke notes that “legislators are clearly responsive to both proven and emerging technological developments.” 

For instance, an increasing number of states are providing funding for ethical forms of stem-cell research.

Unfortunately, as Burke describes, “some states are still susceptible to the “utopia” promised by powerful proponents of unproven technologies such as human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.”

California’s Prop 71, passed in 2004, is a perfect example of taxpayers being sold 3 billion dollar bill of goods. As Investor’s Business Daily put so succinctly,  “Five years after a budget-busting $3 billion was allocated to embryonic stem cell research [in California], there have been no cures, no therapies and little progress.”

We’ve been hearing for years that the only thing embryonic stem cell research needs for success is time and money.  Well, now California has given us the answer to the formula: Time (5 years) + money ($3 billion) = No success.  No cures.  No therapies.

Ironically, California is now diverting funds from embryonic stem cell research into the research that is treating real patients with real therapies:  life-affirming adult stem cell research.

Ultrasound technology also is playing a role in state-level legislation. Since 2007, more than a dozen states have enacted laws that require women to be offered some form of ultrasound prior to an abortion.

Burke is optimistic about the future of these laws. “This enhancement of women’s informed consent will empower women to make positive and life-affirming choices for themselves and their families,” she says.

The advances in technology — with both ultrasound and ethical stem-cell research — have clearly helped advance a more life-affirming perspective in this country. But, as Smith notes, we would be remiss not to remember the heart behind what we do. “The love exhibited by people trying to uphold the sanctity of human life may make a greater difference than they will ever know,” he says.

Dawn Vargo is a bioethics analyst at CitizenLink.

This article orginally appeared in Citizen magazine’s June/July 2010 edition.