Jurisprudence

Those Pregnancy Tissue Photos Were Destined to Backfire on Abortion Rights Supporters

Woman pointing and shouting and holding a plastic doll in front of a crowd.
An anti-abortion activist holds a plastic fetus as she demonstrates in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 13. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Last week, the Guardian published images of pregnancy tissue after abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. The small size and appearance of the tissue were shocking to many. We have all absorbed, knowingly and unknowingly, the pervasive anti-abortion narrative that a pregnancy resembles a tiny baby starting in the earliest weeks. Though an early embryo can be seen under the magnification of ultrasound, it can take months for it to be perceptible to the naked eye.

The anti-abortion movement has always understood the power of ultrasound pictures. It passed laws forcing people to view an ultrasound prior to abortion and used ultrasound images from later in pregnancy to train people to view early pregnancy as a baby.

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The Guardian images immediately contradict that training. Abortion rights supporters quickly seized on the images, using them to highlight the absurdity that mere tissue could overwhelm pregnant people’s rights to bodily autonomy. Unfortunately, some activists also revived old canards about fetal tissue being a mere “phlegmy grain,” “blob of tissue,” or “clump of cells.”

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This minimization of fetal life is meant to counteract the anti-abortion narrative that all fetal life, from the moment of conception, is equal to a breathing baby. But that language also plays into the hands of abortion opponents by shifting the focus away from the pregnant person and alienating the many people who value fetal life but also support abortion rights. The images are powerful. But we suggest that it’s possible to use these images to educate without also minimizing fetal life and those who value it. This minimization is problematic for a few reasons.

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First, around the end of the first trimester, a fetus’s features are more fully formed, and it does start to resemble a tiny human baby. Suggesting that the acceptability of abortion is based on the appearance of the fetus or embryo undermines and stigmatizes abortion rights after this point. We must be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes about “good” and “bad” abortions.

Second, reducing early pregnancy to the “clump of cells” narrative alienates those who have suffered from infertility or pregnancy loss by suggesting that early pregnancy is meaningless. Indeed, the online reaction showed that the Guardian’s images did not sit well with many in these communities, especially during Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month. To some, that small clump of tissue may look like nothing, but to many in the pregnancy loss community, that tissue is everything. It is a baby that they wanted and grieved after loss. This insensitive language can push those who have suffered pregnancy loss into anti-abortion communities because they feel that their loss is being discounted.

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These pitfalls are not inevitable. Another response exists for the abortion rights movement that neither stigmatizes later abortion nor devalues early pregnancy loss: Allow the pregnant person to define a pregnancy’s meaning.

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Pregnancy is incredibly contextual. Some people might become invested in a pregnancy at its outset, as early as a positive result on a pregnancy test. For people experiencing infertility, especially those undergoing IVF, this might start even before pregnancy, as they put pictures of their embryos on their refrigerator. Others might not discover a pregnancy until the second trimester, immediately know that they do not want to or cannot have a child, and get an abortion without much concern.

Pregnancy means different things to different people at different points in their lives. In fact, the same person may experience these different contextual realities in different pregnancies, perhaps with an abortion earlier in life and grieving an early miscarriage later in life. What a pregnancy looks like at whatever week is irrelevant to the pregnant person’s conception of its meaning.

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The anti-abortion movement wins when it gets us to take our focus off the pregnant person and place it on the pregnancy. This isn’t because a pregnancy is valueless but because its value is determined by the person whose body is being sacrificed to carry it. Those people are what matters—not only their bodily autonomy to end a pregnancy, but also their conceptions of the fetal life that they may very much want to keep.

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This is not to suggest that these images aren’t important. Legislators are regulating pregnant people’s bodies with no concept of how they work. We need more education about fetal development. We also need more education on how often fetal development is interrupted, not by abortion but by pregnancy loss.

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The abortion debate generally treats fertilized eggs as destined to turn into living babies—a child either forced upon someone on one side, or whose would-be existence is ended on the other. But the reality is that roughly 70 percent of conceptions never become babies: 50 percent fail to implant and are expelled in menstruation, 15–25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and 1 percent end in stillbirth. Appreciating that fact might help support those suffering pregnancy loss and those fighting to restore abortion rights by contradicting the personhood-at-conception narrative.

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We urge abortion rights supporters to follow the lead of the MYA Network, interviewed for the Guardian piece, which explained that the purpose of the pictures is not to “differentiate between a ‘good time’ and a ‘bad time’ to have an abortion or dismiss how emotionally fraught losing a pregnancy at any stage, including early pregnancy, can be.” This important language has been lost as many have interacted with the images on social media. But it is crucial and must remain central going forward in the fight for abortion rights.

The images are helpful tools for education, but they do not define the meaning or value of pregnancy—only a pregnant person (and not the state) can do that.

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