This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
If you look up the word abortion in a stock image bank, you’ll find roughly three types of photograph: sad women, protesters holding pro-choice signs or foetuses, usually near-fully developed, with a human face, closed eyes and sometimes even a tiny thumb in their mouth.
Besides being morally loaded, the visual association between these tiny babies and abortion is also scientifically incorrect, since the vast majority of procedures are carried before 13 weeks. And yet, anti-abortion movements have used foetuses as a primary symbol since the 1970s.
For most of human history, foetuses weren’t actually visible. We didn’t know much about how they evolved in the womb, we only had drawings and wax models based on stillborns, or foetuses preserved in jars of formaldehyde.
That all changed with Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s book of photography A Child Is Born, which became a global sensation after appearing in Life magazine in 1956. Nilsson captured extreme closeups showing the different stages of human development, from fertilised egg to fully-formed baby.
The colour photographs were one of the first representations of the miracle of life, and really gave viewers the impression they were staring directly into the womb, looking at a foetus calmly floating around like a little astronaut. In reality, Nilsson photographed miscarried and aborted foetuses, using artist lighting and planning his subjects' postures.
The same year Nilsson’s series came out, a hospital in Glasgow used ultrasound technology for foetal screenings for the first time. Now our best tool for checking foetal development before birth, the ultrasound changed prenatal care (and motherhood) forever.
These scans were more than a medical exam – they were our earliest “window into the womb”, as media studies professor José van Dijck wrote in 2001. Before then, only mothers could really know how the pregnancy was developing – they’d be the first to feel the signs of life, or if something wasn’t right.
But since these new exams could only be interpreted by specialists, medical personnel became responsible for directly monitoring the foetus’ well-being, while the mother’s role drifted into the background. “The same technology that made the foetus visible, has made the mother invisible,” wrote American political scientist Rosalind Pollack Petchesky in an influential 1987 essay.
And then, the public window into women’s private domain became political. Before ultrasound technology, anti-abortion activists often relied on religious or moral arguments against safe access to abortions. But the powerful imagery of prenatal scans helped them strengthen their cause –triggering people’s protective instincts towards what looked like a tiny unborn child.
Still living in Sweden, Nilsson was said to have been shocked when he visited London in the 1980s to find his own images plastered on anti-abortion posters. Realising how the images were being used abroad, he refused to allow them to be published again, until an exhibition shortly before his death.
Meanwhile, similar images were being used in the media. In the 1984 film The Silent Scream, which was supposed to be documentary, a doctor shows ultrasounds allegedly depicting a 12-week-old foetus screaming in agony during an abortion. Total pseudo-science, the scene shocked viewers and implied that the pain for the foetus was more important than the pain experienced by women who have to resort to illegal abortions.
In her 1987 essay, Petchesky argued the pro-choice movement hadn’t found an image powerful enough to match the foetus as an icon of the anti-abortion movement. According to Christa Compas, director of Humanistisch Verbond – an NGO based on secular humanistic values – that remains true today. “I would love it if there was a powerful image in support of the idea that people have the right to choose and shape their own lives,” Compas said in a 2019 interview.
The fact that women can die from unsafe abortions clearly hasn’t been enough to stamp out the anti-abortionist movement. Today, feminist movements across the world are going up against imagery that associates abortions with baby-killing. And for pregnant women, the procedure is still often associated with shame and tragedy.
But in reality, many women also feel relief and a renewed sense of control after the procedure. Abortions can save lives: theirs.