Ultrasound Viewers’ Attribution of Moral Status to Fetal Humans: A Case for Presumptive Rationality

Main Article Content

Heidi M. Giebel


As several studies, along with a book and movie depicting the true story of a former clinic director, have recently brought to the public’s attention, fetal ultrasound images dramatically impact some viewers’ normative judgments: a small but non-negligible proportion of viewers attribute increased moral status to fetal humans and even form the belief that abortion is impermissible. I consider three types of psychological explanation for a viewer’s shift in beliefs: (1) increased bonding or empathy, (2) various forms of cognitive bias, and (3) type of cognitive processing involved. I consider the normative implications of each explanation, arguing that in each case the viewer’s judgment is presumptively rational.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
Giebel, Heidi M. 2020. “Ultrasound Viewers’ Attribution of Moral Status to Fetal Humans: A Case for Presumptive Rationality”. Diametros 17 (64):22-35. https://doi.org/10.33392/diam.1472.
Share |


Amit E., Greene J. (2012), “You See, the Ends Don’t Justify the Means: Visual Imagery and Moral Judgment,” Psychological Science 23 (8): 861–868.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611434965

Aristotle (1999), Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin, Hackett, Indianapolis.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/oseo/instance.00258595

Giebel H. (2020), Ethical Excellence: Philosophers, Psychologists, and Real-Life Exemplars Show Us How to Achieve It, CUA Press, Washington (DC).

Batson C.D. (2009), “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena,” [in:] Social Neuroscience. The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, J. Decety, W. Ickes (eds.), The MIT Press, Cambridge (MA): 3–15.

Batson C.D. (2011), Altruism in Humans, Oxford University Press, New York.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195341065.001.0001

Black R.B. (1992), “Seeing the Baby: The Impact of Ultrasound Technology,” Journal of Genetic Counseling 1 (1): 45–54.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00960084

Bloom P. (2016), Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, HarperCollins, New York.

Coke J.S., Batson C.D., McDavis K. (1978), “Empathic Mediation of Helping: A Two-Stage Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (7): 752–766.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.36.7.752

De Neys W. (ed.) (2017), Dual-Process Theory 2.0, Routledge, Oxon/New York.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315204550

De Neys W., Pennycook G. (2019), “Logic, Fast and Slow: Advances in Dual-Process Theorizing,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 28 (5): 503–509.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419855658

Draper J. (2002), “It Was a Real Good Show’: The Ultrasound Scan, Fathers, and the Power of Visual Knowledge,” Sociology of Health and Illness 24 (6): 771–795.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.00318

Dykes K., Stjernqvist K. (2001), “The Importance of Ultrasound to First-Time Mothers’ Thoughts about Their Unborn Child,” Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 19 (2): 95–104.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02646830123343

Evans J.S.B.T., Stanovich K.E. (2013), “Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition: Advancing the Debate,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 8 (3): 223–241.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691612460685

Fletcher J.C., Evans M.I. (1983), “Maternal Bonding in Early Fetal Ultrasound Examinations,” New England Journal of Medicine 308: 392–393.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM198302173080710

Gatter M., Kimport K., Foster D.G. et al. (2014), “Relationship Between Ultrasound Viewing and Proceeding to Abortion,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 123 (1): 81–87.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000000053

Gettier E. (1963), “Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?,” Analysis 23 (6): 121–123.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/23.6.121

Graziano W.G., Habashi M.M. (2015), “Searching for the Prosocial Personality,” [in:] The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior, D.A. Schroeder, W.G. Graziano (eds.), Oxford University Press, New York: 231–256.

Haidt J. (2012), The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage Books, New York.

Hoffman M.L. (2002), Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hourdequin M. (2015), “The Limits of Empathy,” [in:] Virtue Ethics and Confucianism, S.C. Angle, M. Slote (eds.), Routledge, New York: 209–218.

Hume D. (2011), A Treatise of Human Nature. Volume 1: Texts, D. Norton, M. Norton (eds.), [in:] D. Hume, Clarendon Hume Edition Series, Clarendon, Oxford.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/oseo/instance.00032872

Johnson A. (2011), Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line, Tyndale House, New York.

de Jong-Pleij E.A.P., Ribbert L.S.M., Pistorius L.R. et al. (2013), “Three-Dimensional Ultrasound and Maternal Bonding, a Third Trimester Study and a Review,” Prenatal Diagnosis 33 (1): 81–88.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/pd.4013

Kahneman D. (2011), Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Mahajan N., Wynn K. (2012), “Origins of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’: Prelinguistic Infants Prefer Similar Others,” Cognition 124 (2): 227–233.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2012.05.003

Marquis D. (2007), “The Moral-Principle Objection to Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Metaphilosophy 38 (2–3): 190–206.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9973.2007.00481.x

Mencius [Mengzi] (2004), Mengzi, trans. B. Van Norden, Hackett, Indianapolis.

Miller C. (2013), Moral Character: An Empirical Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674350.001.0001

Mills C. (2018), “Seeing, Feeling, Doing: Mandatory Ultrasound Laws, Empathy, and Abortion,” Journal of Practical Ethics 6 (2): 1–31.

Milne L.S., Rich O.J. (1981), “Cognitive and Affective Aspects of the Responses of Pregnant Women to Sonography,” Maternal-Child Nursing Journal 10 (1): 15–39.

Öhman S.G., Waldenström U. (2010), “Effect of First-Trimester Ultrasound Screening for Down Syndrome on Maternal–Fetal Attachment – A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare 1: 85–90.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.srhc.2010.05.002

Øyen L., Aune I. (2016), “Viewing the Unborn Child – Pregnant Women’s Expectations, Attitudes, and Experiences Regarding Fetal Ultrasound Examination,” Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare 7: 8–13.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.srhc.2015.10.003

Plato (1992), Republic, trans. B. Jowett, Hackett, Indianapolis.

Ruffman T., Then R., Cheng C. et al. (2019), “Lifespan Differences in Emotional Contagion While Watching Emotion-Eliciting Videos,” PLoS ONE 14 (1): e0209253.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209253

Sanger C. (2008), “Seeing and Believing: Mandatory Ultrasound and the Path to a Protected Choice,” UCLA Law Review 56 (2): 351–408.

Shaw L.L., Batson C.D., Todd R.M. (1994), “Empathy Avoidance: Forestalling Feeling for Another in Order to Escape the Motivational Consequences,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (5): 879–887.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.67.5.879

Slote M. (2007), The Ethics of Care and Empathy, Routledge, New York.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203945735

South Dakota [USA] Legislature (2005), “Report of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion,” URL = http://rewire.news/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/South-Dakota-Abortion-Task-Force-Report.pdf [Accessed 08.06.2020].

Unger P. (2006), Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Waldman K. (2014), “Does Looking at an Ultrasound Before Abortion Change Women’s Minds?,” Slate, URL = https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/01/ultrasound-viewing-before-an-abortion-a-new-study-finds-that-for-a-small-percentage-of-women-sonograms-change-minds.html [Accessed 08.06.2020].

Wolf N. (1995), “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric,” New Republic 213 (16): 26, 28–29, 32–35.