Ultrasound, or sound waves with frequencies above detection by the human ear, is commonly used in obstetrics to diagnose both the age and health of the developing fetus. An ultrasound-emitting device called a transducer is placed against the skin of the pregnant woman’s abdomen. The sound waves reflect in varying degrees when they contact tissues of different density and elasticity. The pattern of echoes is detected by the transducer and is converted into a moving image seen on a monitor. Ultrasound is also used in procedures involving the sampling of amniotic fluid or placental tissue. Outside of obstetrics, it is used to detect tumors, damage, or abnormalities in the liver, kidney, ovaries, eyes, and other organs. Because ultrasound waves pass readily through soft tissue but not through bone or gas, the technique cannot be used to scan parts of the body such as the brain, lungs, or intestines.
Great advances were made in birth control with the improvement of intrauterine devices in the 1950s and the development of the birth control pill in 1960 by the American biologist Gregory Pincus. By the 1990s long-lasting hormonal implants and contraceptive injections such as Depo-Provera were developed. These options gave women more control in deciding whether to become pregnant. Voluntary sterilization, involving vasectomies in men and tubal sterilization in women, emerged as a popular way of permanent birth control. Unwanted pregnancies, however, remained a serious problem in the late 1990s. Researchers still sought more convenient and safer methods of birth control, including a male birth control pill.
By 1975 physicians were able to diagnose some congenital or inherited diseases before childbirth (see Birth Defects). Doctors take samples of placental cells (see Chorionic Villus Sampling) or of the amniotic fluid around the fetus (see Amniocentesis) to determine whether hereditary blood diseases, Down syndrome, defects of the spine, or other congenital diseases are present. Even the sex of a fetus may be known in advance.
In amniocentesis, a medical procedure generally performed during the fourth month of pregnancy, approximately one ounce of the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus is drawn off for study. The examination of fetal cells contained in the sample can provide valuable information concerning developmental abnormalities of the fetus.
In addition to advances in early diagnosis, progress occurred in identifying the causes of some birth defects. Excess alcohol consumption during pregnancy was linked to fetal alcohol syndrome, and inadequate intake of the vitamin folic acid was linked to spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
Advances in treating infertility, which prevents couples from having children, began with the world's first so-called test-tube baby born in the 1980s through in vitro fertilization. Other forms of assisted reproduction soon became available. Researchers in 1997 cloned a lamb from cells taken from an adult ewe. It led to speculation that human cloning could become another option in human reproduction.