Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Women's Studies and Feminist Research


Dr. Susan Knabe


This thesis explores women’s experiences with the practice of elective prenatal ultrasound imaging in Canada. Ultrasound technology was first introduced into obstetric practice in the late 1950s and has, since then, become a routine part of antenatal healthcare. More recently, ultrasound technology has expanded into private industry, with many businesses now offering keepsake or entertainment ultrasound to pregnant women and their families. I begin by offering a brief historical account of the development and diffusion of obstetric ultrasound, and situating the elective ultrasound industry within current debates about non-medical applications of ultrasound technology. Through in-depth interviews with women had who received (or were planning to receive) an elective ultrasound during a current or recent pregnancy, and a discourse analysis of the promotional websites of a selection of elective ultrasound clinics, I sought to understand how ultrasound is taken up in non-medical settings; how women experience ultrasound in a non-medical setting, and how the image is taken up both inside and outside the screening room. Using a feminist standpoint approach, deeply influenced by institutional ethnographic methodology, I analyze the practice, beginning from women’s lived experiences. Elective ultrasound was positioned, and in most cases experienced, as a welcome alternative to medical ultrasound. Participants described their consumer choices as inspired by a desire to bond with their fetus in a comfortable and inviting atmosphere, to counteract their feelings of anxiety around their pregnancies. The findings expose a gap in feminist theorizing around prenatal ultrasound, in that most participants discussed their experiences in positive terms. A discussion of neoliberal subjectivity addresses the ways in which participants were able to articulate their maternal identities through their consumer choices. I contend that the maternal identities to which participants aspired reflect broad social and cultural narratives of motherhood, specifically the institution of motherhood as first described by Adrienne Rich (1977). Notions of risk and responsibility are foregrounded in both medical and elective settings in ways that emphasize pregnant women’s responsibility to mitigate potential risks, without ascription of the corresponding social, political and economic power to do so.