Womb Lens

Two weeks ago, annette Karwacki, a 22-year-old New Jersey mother-to-be, was one of 5,000 pregnant women to receive a flyer advertising A Peek in the Pod, a new private studio on the Upper East Side that records high-resolution images of unborn babies as “prenatal memories.” “As soon as I read about it, I said, ‘I have to do this!’ ” She wasn’t alone: In the month since the studio opened, more than 40 expectant mothers desiring a head start on their baby-photo scrapbooks raced in to have their fetuses’ portraits taken on the state-of-the-art Medison Accuvix XQ ultrasound scanner, the newest and most advanced model in the field. And a television commercial that aired last week resulted in a rash of bookings for the studio, the first of its kind in New York.

But while the response among women has been strong, doctors are concerned that the technology, fiercely guarded by the medical community, has fallen into the wrong hands. “A Peek in the Pod better have good insurance. What they’re doing is potentially a medical liability,” says obstetrician-gynecologist Shari Leipzig. “It preys on people’s anxieties.”

Indeed, doctors fear anxious mothers-to-be will make multiple visits and come away falsely convinced that there is something wrong with their fetuses, or, conversely, miss real problems that would be caught by a medical professional. Frequent exposure to ultrasound waves, moreover, can be damaging to both fetus and mother. With these concerns in mind, Rocky McClintock, the owner of A Peek in the Pod, limits clients’ visits to three, and exposure never exceeds fifteen minutes, significantly less than the mandatory, physician-supervised sonograms women undergo at about twenty weeks, which can last up to 45 minutes.

The Accuvix XQ is FDA-approved, but the agency frowns on the commercial use of the technology. Still, Tony Ullo, the Medison distributor who sold McClintock her machine in late December (only four exist in New York; the other three are owned by Brooklyn Methodist Hospital), says that “at this point, there are no established rules. The FDA is being very wishy-washy.”

For her part, McClintock explicitly informs her clients that the images are not substitutes for medical sonograms, and before an expectant mother arrives at the studio, she must have already received proper prenatal care. “We fax all the information about our procedures” to each client’s OB/GYN prior to the sonogram, says McClintock.

A patient’s safety is not the only concern fueling doctors’ outrage, McClintock continues. “They fear they’re going to lose revenue.” A medical sonogram can exceed $400 and often involves the hassle of dealing with health-insurance administrators. A Peek in the Pod’s 30-minute procedure costs $295 and provides women with printed “color” photos (in fact, a kind of sepia hue), a CD-rom, and a video of the fetus in motion. The cutting-edge machinery (which sells for about $160,000) offers the highest-resolution images available; scans are taken when women are between 18 and 35 weeks into their pregnancies, at which point a fetus is developed enough, with filled-out cheeks, to be photographed. (Indeed, such vivid pictures are potentially worrisome to abortion-rights activists, who fear that presenting a cute, childlike face on a fetus may hurt their cause.)

Andrea Rinaldi, 30 weeks pregnant with her first child, predicts that “elective sonography” will become the latest baby-vanity must-have. “Ayden Cole is so beautiful! He looks just like me,” she whispers, referring to her unborn but already named son. “Full lips and a beautiful chin.” During Rinaldi’s sonogram, her husband, Peter Rinaldi, an aesthetic dentist, cried, “Take a picture of his pee-pee!” He even included a shot of his unborn baby’s penis in a PowerPoint presentation at a recent lecture—even though the subject of the talk was porcelain veneers. “I made it so an arrow was pointing to it,” Rinaldi says with a laugh. “They loved it!”

Womb Lens