The cry of the babe in the womb

In a fascinating article about the importance of the human voice ('Human Voices - Haud Muto Factum: Nothing happens by being mute' in Education Today, vol 58, no. 3, College of Teachers, London, September 2008) Professor Rosemary Sage discusses the by now familiar observations about the way in which a child in the womb relates to his mother's voice. She develops this still further to relate the mother's voice and heartbeat to the very rhythms of language, song and poetry.

But what really struck me was the phenomenon of the uterine scream. Many will know of Dr Bernard Nathanson and the film The Silent Scream. It is a difficult film to watch. I saw it for the first time when I was 14 or 15, together with 125 other boys in my year group, at King Edward VI School, Southampton, an independent grammar school for boys, where I was a pupil. I remember that during the showing, the 'hard man' of the year (later expelled) had to leave the room and vomit. I still remember how that whole cohort, to a man, decided afterwards that abortion was one of the most unspeakable evils imaginable. Our RE teacher asked us 'What are you going to do about it, then? March on Southampton General Hospital and stop them doing this today?" We decided that we would not do this, but that we would simply bear witness to the truth of it all.

What moved us so much? In Nathanson's film an abortion procedure is captured on an ultrasound recording, and a distinct contortion is seen on the child's face as the vacuum pump reaches up to kill it. However, the silent scream is exactly what it says: silent. This is where Professor Sage comes in again.

Professor Sage quotes research that indicates that a surprising number of uterine screams have been witnessed and documented by medical practitioners over the last 400 years:

"Remarkably, there are 131 cases, between 1546 and 1941, of cries from human foetuses - usually following a medical procedure where they were touched, known as vagitus uterinus (squalling in the womb). The American physician who wrote about this event described the cry as like the mew of a kitten (Chamberlain, 1989)"

Source quoted by Sage is Chamberlain, D. B. (1989) 'Babies remember pain', Journal of Perinatal Psychology, 3(4).

This, if nothing else, ought to bring home to modern man the enormity of what happens to 1 in 3 unborn babies in the UK every year.

We used often to speak of sins 'crying out to heaven for vengeance'. Perhaps it is not vengeance that these babies are crying out for, but, at the very least, for mercy. In any event, their cry deserves some kind of answer from someone.

On a more technical note, it is generally held that vagitus uterinus is only possible when air has entered the uterus and the membrane has been broken (so, during childbirth or an abortion procedure, for example). However, an article in the BMJ in 1933 ( mentions folk traditions that tell of the young of various animals crying out in the womb as a portent of forthcoming events ... fascinating, isn't it?


Anonymous said…
That is interesting stuff. I find that the more I discover about babes in the womb, the more amazed I am by them!

On a different note, another blog that I read had a very interesting article on MHC breeding via the advent of the birth control pill. If you get a chance, it's worth the read. It was one of the more interesting articles I have read in quite some time.

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