The Rhetorical Strategies of Pregnancy Support Centers Including the Visual Rhetoric of Fetal Ultrasound Technology

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Studies

First Advisor

John C. Meyer

Advisor Department

Communication Studies


This study examined the rhetorical strategies, including verbal and visual rhetoric, of pregnancy support centers that provide clients with fetal ultrasounds to persuade those who may be considering abortion as a means of resolving their unplanned pregnancy to carry to term. Qualitative data were gathered from 12 interviews of directors and ultrasound personnel from 7 states as well as from television advertisements and printed material. Eighteen research questions investigating the rhetorical transactions between centers and clients were answered. Rhetorical analyses were performed on the verbal and visual messages used in client interactions. The grounded theory approach of inquiry resulted in the discovery of 10 major themes. First, centers offer holistic Christian ministry to clients. Second, centers provide professional health services. Third, a quest for uncertainty reduction and information brings clients to the centers. Fourth, centers maintain safe supportive environments. Fifth, personnel are trained to demonstrate sensitivity in sharing information. Sixth, staff exercise care in their deliberate choice of terms. Seventh, members recognize the importance of interpersonal communication in building relationships with and mentoring clients. Eighth, centers use persuasive arguments and artifacts. Ninth, ultrasound serves to reify the pregnancy for clients. Tenth, empowering clients to make their own decisions is a center goal. A rhetorical critique was performed using three approaches. First, the rhetorical functions communicated by the visual artifacts were explored. Second, the individual elements of the visuals were examined for persuasive potential. Third, the possibility that the visual of the ultrasound image fills the eye of the beholder with a single dominant meaning was considered. The conclusion is that the apparent persuasive success of the ultrasound can be partially explained by the client's recognition of baby schema characteristics present in the fetus, recognition of the fetal heartbeat, and recognition of the beating heart as a symbol of life. The persuasive potential of the fetal position and fetal movement were also discussed. The role of storytelling was examined. The possibility of client self-persuasion was also evaluated.