Fetal Photos -- Fun or Folly?

Published September 25, 2002

| FoxNews.com

Expectant moms can now see their unborn babies more clearly than ever, and as many times as they'd like during the pregnancy -- if they want to pay one of the new controversial private businesses offering the service.

Companies like Fetal Fotos in Salt Lake City, founded by obstetrician Leon Hansen, use the most cutting-edge ultrasound technology -- allowing parents-to-be to see 3-D and 4-D images of the fetus that show characteristics like sex, facial features and hair.

"It feels like I'm waiting for so long through the whole pregnancy -- I want to see him now," said Kim Royer, an expectant mother who went to Fetal Fotos for an ultrasound.

The high-tech scan, which isn't covered by insurance, costs $60 at a Fetal Fotos facility and $280 at his doctor's office, according to Hansen.

But the trend has angered the FDA and other critics, who argue it's exploitative and dangerous and is commercializing a sensitive medical procedure.

"Here's a group that's using this wonderful technology to put bucks in their pockets," said Dr. John Hobbins, head of obstetrics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "These individuals are going to make false-positive diagnoses, see something that's wrong, scare the hell out of the patient unjustifiably."

Hansen defended his practice, and thinks the tide of negative public sentiment will turn.

"Twenty years ago, they felt it was inappropriate to have a pregnancy test available to the general public," he said.

About 10 new facilities like Fetal Fotos are springing up around the country, some in malls or highway shopping centers. But they aren't regulated, and the technicians aren't certified medical sonographers trained to identify problems in the womb.

That worries the FDA and other doctors, especially because the effects of repeated ultrasounds on the fetus aren't fully known.

Since the FDA monitors the safety of ultrasound, it's been playing watchdog over businesses like Fetal Fotos -- and has even shut some of them down.

"They have said that exposing the fetus to ultrasound without a medical indication is unjustified," said Hobbins.

Ultrasounds have been in use for four decades but until recently, expectant mothers could only get the scans if they were ordered and supervised by a doctor. Now if patients have the cash, they can get them done -- as many times as they want -- on their own, thanks to businesses like Hansen's.

"Oh, he's so active -- those are his feet," a Fetal Fotos technician told an excited Royer as she looked at the screen. "Here's a little knee and this is his calf."

Hansen and other proponents of the practice say the technology has never been shown to do harm. He believes the medical community is just trying to protect what has always been its own turf.

In the end, pressure from consumers may make the commercialization and privatization of ultrasounds inevitable.

Fox News' Carol McKinley and Catherine Donaldson-Evans contributed to this report.

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