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Fetal Frenzy 

How the embryo in amnion became the strange icon of anti-abortionists

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

IN THE THREE DECADES SINCE ROE V. WADE determined that women in the United States had a right to safe and legal abortion on request, the anti-abortion movement has used the photographed image of an embryo as an emotional counterpoint to reproductive choice. Floating in amniotic fluid or mangled on the steel table of the abortion clinic, the large-headed, curled being, frozen in time, was meant to alarm all of us who might voluntarily terminate a pregnancy: Blown up to grown-infant proportions, the otherwise pea-size creature looks much like a sleeping baby, eyes shut tight, thumb close to lips, laid on its side as if about to burp up a mother's milk. After the ninth week, the fetus even has fingertips, a detail opponents of abortion made sure we all knew.

But the image was with us before the fight was on. The first stunning photographs of the near-mythic creature ensconced in the womb came from a Swedish photographer named Lennart Nilsson, who spent seven years painstakingly documenting the various stages of life from zygote to fetus. In a 1965 issue of Life magazine, Nilsson unveiled the first results of his work, in a series of photographs depicting "The Drama of Life Before Birth." Almost right away, the images took on a political burden, although at first the politics were subtle, and not necessarily intentional. As Karen Newman points out in her book, Fetal Positions: Individuals, Science, Visuality, the magazine's editors loaded the "portraits" with vocabulary that betrayed their ideology: "The word portrait," she wrote, "defined in Webster's as 'a painting or photograph etc. of a person, especially of his face,' makes a claim from the outset for fetal personhood."

Life explicitly presented the images as a marvel of the natural world, not an argument against abortion, but by doing so the magazine released the images into the wild, to be used by whoever had use for them. And as the anti-abortion movement gathered momentum in the '80s, the artistically rendered contents of the fertilized egg turned from wonder to icon: Fetuses and embryos were paraded on placards, bumper stickers and buttons so unrelentingly that the shape of this tiny seed of life became, for many of us who came of age in the late '70s and '80s, little more than a lapel-pin emblem of the anti-abortion movement, as separated from its biological reality as it is from the woman's body that carries it. Encrusted with a political hysteria that has little to do with genuine respect for human life, the embryo has lost much of its power to amaze us. Until I sat down recently and stared at Nilsson's photographs, I'd forgotten what a thrill it is to behold this being in its very earliest stages of development, perfectly situated in its amniotic bliss, a suggestion of every human feature etched in its contours. I am clinically fascinated as well as moved: It is a creature of remarkable symmetry and adaptation. It is a miracle.

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It is not, however, a person. Nor it is a life with rights to trump those of the fully formed woman upon whom it depends. Not to me, because I am less interested in the largely theological question of where life begins than in minimizing the abject and protracted suffering of humans who already exist. To the extent that I have a religion, it is one that promotes the autonomy and happiness of already established and independent creatures, and I am simply not interested in debating whether a zygote, embryo or fetus, no matter how extraordinary to gaze upon, should derail the future of a woman, young or old, who does not wish, for whatever reason, to carry it to term. Along with the teachings of the Sikhs, the Talmud and the Unitarians, my particular faith dictates that a woman have the final say about what goes on in her body.

Although Life described Nilsson's photographs as "life before birth," the embryos and fetuses he photographed were actually already dead, culled from the wombs of women who, under Sweden's liberal reproductive-rights policies, had terminated their pregnancies. "Working in cooperation with doctors in Sweden," writes Newman, "where many privileged American women of sufficient means obtained abortions during the '60s, Nilsson perfected photographic techniques for chronicling embryonic development." Nilsson sloughed off placenta, backlit his subjects, manipulated environments to achieve these glowing apparitions. Their contours would define anti-abortion-propaganda aesthetics for the ages.

IN A COUNTRY DOMINATED BY A FRIGHTENINGLY superstitious attorney general and a president who now proposes granting fetuses better medical care than his administration allows grown women, it's useful to consider that neither the god of Christian nations nor more ancient deities have been so clearly enamored of the embryo: Before the middle of the 19th century, most Western civilizations tolerated abortion before the "quickening," in the first 12 weeks when no movement could be felt from the fetus. Muslims defended abortion before the "ensoulment" of the fertilized egg; ancient civilizations in Greece and Egypt left behind instructions for poison pessaries and herbal concoctions to end a pregnancy. And while Hippocrates weighed in against abortion -- chiefly out of concern for the mother's well-being -- Aristotle did not. "When couples have children in excess," he wrote in Politics, "let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun."

Nor do even passionately prospective mothers and fathers grant such absolute sanctity to every embryonic life: In the course of a gamete intra-fallopian transfer procedure, a physician removes the surplus embryos that have successfully lodged in the womb of a woman who wanted, sometimes desperately wanted, only one child, if for no other reason than to promote the healthy development of the most robust embryo. In a process soberly called "multifetal pregnancy reduction," those fertilized and implanted embryos are discarded, as are billions of fertilized eggs all over the world that were preserved with the expectation that they might be needed but turn out to be superfluous. As much as some anti-abortionists, in a stab at consistency, want to make an issue of every zygote, or to ban the use of embryos in stem-cell research that may well save the lives of established mothers and fathers currently raising families, there is no significant political movement afoot to ban fertility treatments. The fetal image anti-abortionists claim to defend is in fact merely a diversion, as the whole abortion debate is for the right-wing administration: The real battle is over the bodies of women.

And what about the sanctity of their lives? History has shown that prohibiting abortion does little to stop the procedure; in countries from Nazi Germany to Romania to the United States, banning abortion has led to death and injury among women of childbearing age. Abortion rates have declined, however, in countries that combine liberal abortion law with sex education and access to contraceptives, and birthrates happily rise in societies that reward mothers with subsidized day care and affordable medicine. Norway has integrated into its abortion law a pledge that "all children enjoy conditions for a secure upbringing"; France gives financial incentives to mothers; Sweden offers a promise that having a baby alone, or under financial duress, will neither stigmatize them socially nor consign them to poverty.

These societies, which arguably need abortion the least, offer it without restriction in the first trimester, free of charge, and yet theirs is a social policy I can without reservation call pro-life. Those who would be moved by the image of the embryo and their various gods to stop women from having abortions -- and my high regard for religious freedom demands that I respect their views -- would do well to abandon their "truth trucks," and get to work making the world a more hospitable place in which to raise a child. And then this magical image of the embryo in the womb should symbolize a different political movement: One that seeks to construct a social policy in which no mother, whatever her economic circumstances, attitude or marital status, lacks the resources to feed her children.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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