Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Cultural Ramifications of an Ultrasound

This article is contributed by Sarah Scrafford, who regularly writes on the topic of Online Ultrasound Technician Schools. She invites your questions, comments and freelancing job inquiries at her email address: sarah.scrafford25@gmail.com.

You’d think there wouldn’t be a cultural side to a technology that helps look inside your body, but there is, at least in certain parts of the world. An ultrasound scan is a technique that uses sound waves, or to be more precise, ultrasound which has a high frequency and hence cannot be heard by human ears, to create images of organs in your body. The sound waves bounce off body structures and are then compiled by a computer program into images.

Ultrasound is used for a variety of applications and is the preferred form of medical imaging except when there’s bone or gas-filled organs like the lung and bowel to be scanned. It finds extensive use in pregnancy, to monitor the growth of the fetus at different stages and to determine the sex of the baby. And that’s where the cultural aspect comes into play.

Now most people are ok with either a boy or a girl baby; sure, they may have their preferences, but they’re happy with either one if they’re healthy and normal. But there are some parts of the world where a boy child is considered an asset and a girl a liability – China for one, and India for another. With selective sex abortion being a widespread practice in both countries, the respective governments have banned the revelation of the sex of the fetus following an ultrasound examination. But female fetuses are still aborted, contributing to the widely skewed sex ratios in both countries.

In China, it’s an issue that relates to the large population of the country. With the government strictly enforcing the one-child law, parents want it to be a male so that their family name is carried on. Male children are also likely to earn money for the family and look after their parents in their old age.

In India, in addition to carrying on the family name, males are preferred because they are expected to look after their parents and help in the family business. Also, only males can perform certain rituals like last rites and they’re sure to bring dowry (gifts of cash and kind) when they marry. Females are not wanted because they are seen as a financial burden when they must be married – the parents tend to go broke trying to rustle up enough money to cover the dowry demanded by the groom’s family. Although dowry harassment is illegal in the country and punishable with fines and imprisonment, the practice still continues.

The cultural ramifications of a simple ultrasound exam extend as far as skewing the sex ratio of an entire nation. Although the technology is relatively new, it’s fast replacing female infanticide as the preferred method of selective sex abortion. And even though it’s illegal to reveal the sex of the fetus, some radiologists do so for the money, and the practice of selective abortion continues to plague both nations and a few others others in Asia.

1 comment:

Anne Marie said...

Thank you for this. I think that ultrasound in pregnancy, especially in the developed world, has got many cultural connutations that are unrelated to the medical reasons it was introduced.
I read this paper about some of the many different ways we assess mothering a few months ago, and it made me think about my own work as a GP.
I hope you enjoy reading it and it would be nice to hear what you think.