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photos by Lara Shipley

The Happy Foetus?

September 16th, 2003 · No Comments

The NR crowd are linking the news that new imaging techniques show foetuses smiling in the womb, citing it as “bad news for NARAL.” Maybe it is from the point of view of popular reaction… but I’m always puzzled when pro-life folks cite things like that. Isn’t it tantamount to announcing that support for your position depends on an emotional reaction to superficial stuff like how cute a foetus looks? Don’t they always make fun of animal rights people on those grounds?

Anyway… what really struck me as odd was the claim that prior to this new imaging technique, doctors had thought babies learned smiling behavior by imitating their mothers. That just seems odd. Smiling when happy is one of a handfull of human emotional expressions which are “universals”—constant across all known human cultures. Same goes for fear, surprise, contempt, disgust, sadness, and anger. You can airdrop onto an island isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years, and if there’s a pygmy tribe hanging out in the jungle there, you can still tell how they feel about you by their facial expressions. And my take is: “well, then of course that’s got to be genetically hardwired.” What I’m curious about, then, is whether there’s some reason this was still in doubt, or whether it’s just that most doctors just hadn’t been exposed to the anthropological literature on this… which seems unlikely. To the extent that it was a matter of discussion at all, surely somone would have known about findings which have been around for a good long while now. Any ideas?

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