Perspective: What pictures of abortions can and can’t do
Photos of tissue do not accurately reflect what a fetus looked like before the abortion. Nor do they answer the moral questions of the abortion debate
In first the Guardian and then The New York Times, the co-founders of My Abortion Network shared pictures of the tissue from early abortions. Their goal is to fight back against the challenges presented by pregnancy apps like The Bump, which mark every week with pronouncements like “Your baby is the size of a blueberry” or “Your baby is wiggling its flipper-like limbs.” The group wants to show the absence of evidence for this narrative — the petri dishes with fragments of thin, pale tissue splayed across their circles. Just trash, no life.
The trouble is, more than any other previous generation, moms in my millennial cohort have seen pictures, and not just from the anti-abortion poster waved outside a clinic or the blurred teddy bear of an early ultrasound. It was from The Bump that I learned that “clump of cells” was far from accurate as a description of the little person I carried. It was easier to trust a pregnancy app than the abortion opponents I argued with in college, when I was firmly an advocate of abortion rights.
The claim being made by My Abortion Network is that even seemingly neutral sources of information, like “What to Expect” or embryology textbooks, are presenting misinformation— their photos or drawings of fetal development are too magnified, lending the fetus a dignity it does not, in My Abortion Network’s telling, possess. But their own pictures are shaped by the physical reality of abortion, which distorts the physical body of the child.
The pictures show the results of manual vacuum aspiration abortions, where baby and placenta are pulled from the womb by vacuum pressure and sucked through a narrow cannula. The vacuum force has to be strong enough to rip apart the blood vessels binding baby to mother; it is strong enough to fragment a tiny body. As My Abortion Network acknowledges, each photo does not show a fetus at all, just the fragments of the gestational sac, which they describe as “like the ‘house’ for the pregnancy.”
They claim that even if a fetus passed through the cannula intact, it would be impossible to see. This is hard to take seriously. By nine weeks, a fetus is just under an inch long — no one needs a microscope or a magnifying glass to see a body the size of a cherry. As The Bump puts it, “Now that baby’s nearly an inch long, they definitely look like a miniature baby! Baby has ear lobes now, clear fingers and toes and a little nubbin of a nose.”
In my miscarriage support groups, women who lose a baby at this stage sometimes try to find the body amid the blood clots and other effluvia. They want to bury the body or simply to come face to face with the child who will not get to see them. The moms pass around photos of the bodies they found, as a guide to what to look for and as a way to be prepared for the gap between the child you hoped to deliver full term and your baby as he or she is. In the 9-week photos shared, the babies are not invisible. Their fingers are clearly discernible, their heads massive and bobbing over their small torsos.
I don’t recognize the products of my own miscarriages in the photos that My Abortion Network shows off. I had a miscarriage at eight weeks, and, when I left the Thanksgiving table to pass our baby and look through the tissue, I only saw fragments of gestational sac and placenta, not a body.
Even though they display some of the same tissue, My Abortion Network carefully rinsed off all the blood, leaving behind a translucent scrim. What they show is gossamer, impossible to hold, easy to lose. What I turned over in my hands was undeniably flesh. It wasn’t particularly comforting to hold, except as a small reassurance of the reality of my loss.
It makes it all the harder to know how to approach the argument over abortion, when the basic, empirical questions about what the body and tissue looks like can’t be a point of agreement. If the basic reality of what can and can’t be seen with naked eye is contested, how can we tackle the harder questions of morals that are at the heart of the disagreement.
It’s common to argue that nothing supports your opponent’s position, but this is rarely true. Claiming that you are right is claiming that your account of the world is the best fit for the evidence we have, not that your opponent’s views are utterly baseless or in bad faith. Going too far forces you to deny the plain truth if you think, viewed in isolation, it might give aid and comfort to the enemy.
To its credit, My Abortion Network says clearly that the photos don’t settle the moral argument. Eventually, a small figure is discernible, and the group said, “We did not want our message to undermine our unequivocal support for patients who make this decision at later stages when there is a visible embryo or fetus.” Their argument is that abortion is always morally licit, and the images of the body have no moral claim on the viewer. It should have been easier to concede that a body can be discerned earlier.
In a Washington Post story on networks that distribute medication abortion where it is illegal, an abortion doula explains how she helps clients hide evidence. When women take the pills smuggled in from Mexico, she offers them a small vial of acid, to dissolve any visible body. “I try to emotionally prepare them and say, ‘It’s going to look like a baby,’” she told reporter Caroline Kitchener.
It will look like a baby, but it won’t be a baby. The evidence of your eyes gives way again to the philosophy of personhood.
If My Abortion Network had shown more accurate pictures, or even a wider range of photos, including both the empty sac I held and the bodies other mothers buried, I don’t think they would have conceded as much as they feared. Someone might be surprised by accurate images of fetal development, but that images don’t themselves compel someone to oppose abortion.
But with every conversation we have where we are too wary of conceding any clear, empirical point — the appearance of a fetus, the real physical risks of pregnancy — the less prepared we are for a conversation about the moral questions. The Dobbs decision didn’t set abortion policy; it sent the decision to state legislatures and Congress. It put the responsibility on us, and deliberative democracy, rather than narrow legal arguments that explore the limits of “undue burden.” Printing misleading photos as truth in the nation’s largest newspaper indicates America is poorly prepared for that responsibility. If we can’t agree on what we see, we won’t be able to have a deep conversation with our neighbor about whether we see a who.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.