An Abridged History Of The Imagery Of The Human Embryo

Did you know this photo by Lennart Nilsson was staged? Neither did we, until we read the University of Cambridge’s online exhibit, “Making Visible Embryos.”

The University of Cambridge explains:

Although claiming to show the living fetus, [Lennart] Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth. But the origin of the pictures was rarely mentioned, even by ‘pro-life’ activists, who in the 1970s appropriated these icons.

So, when anti-abortion activists are showing pictures of their “babies” to clinic clients, they’re actually using pictures of aborted fetuses.

Nilsson’s photographs aside, the exhibit itself is about the development of fetal imagery in science and popular culture over the last millennium, starting with the idea that fetuses were tiny — but fully formed — humans. Despite the imagery, abortion was common and accepted before the Enlightenment period until the point where the fetus started to move, as that was considered to only reliable sign of actual pregnancy.

Distinguished by their periodic discharge of fluids, especially blood, women in their fertile years were perched between good growth and evil stagnation. An interruption of the monthly course was variously interpreted as a harbinger of pregnancy or a sign of ill health: a woman might be expecting a child or need to take herbs to restore the flow. Something she passed could be the returned period, an abortion or a false conception.
Pregnancy remained uncertain even when the bleeding failed to reappear and the abdomen started to enlarge. The earliest reliable sign was ‘quickening’, when a mother-to-be felt the child move in the womb-but in some cases pregnancy was revealed for certain only at birth.

Therefore, if you weren’t yet pregnant, per se, abortion wasn’t necessarily really “abortion”… or evil.

Some theologians placed ensoulment, or the acquisition of a God-given immortal soul, at conception. Yet from the late Middle Ages the Aristotelian view dominated. For practical purposes, quickening tended to be interpreted as coinciding with the entry of the soul. Understanding the early embryo as not-yet-human contributed to widespread tolerance of abortion. This would begin to change only in the Enlightenment.

So, the Enlightenment apparently had its flaws.

In fact, the Enlightenment — and thereafter the Industrial Revolution — led to governments thinking about maternal health and maternal care for even unmarried pregnant women (and the criminalization of abortion) for the good of the workforce.

In the late 1700s governments and medicine focused intensely on pregnancy because a healthy and numerous population was now seen as essential to a well-ordered, competitive state. The punishment and prevention of abortion and infanticide were hotly debated in legal and medical circles. New lying-in hospitals provided care, food and shelter for poor, unmarried women. They also trained midwives and the man-midwives, later called obstetricians, who were taking over childbirth among the upper classes. These institutions increased anatomists’ access to embryonic and fetal specimens.

Access to specimens, from spontaneous abortion (miscarriages), induced abortions and cadavers led to a greater understanding of fetal development which, in turn, contributed to debates about (of course) evolution.

To produce a series, Soemmerring needed embryos that, hidden in women’s bodies, were hard to obtain.
The main source was abortions, spontaneous or induced. Very occasionally anatomists carried out post-mortems of women who turned out to have been in early pregnancy. Some had committed suicide precisely because they feared a child. Soemmerring found a rich embryo collection already established in Kassel. Further specimens came through personal medical networks. The foundling house and the lying-in hospital there furnished the anatomical theatre with human material: corpses, still-births and abortions.

This led to drawings comparing human fetuses to other animal fetuses by Ernst Häckel, which showed many species were similar at the early stages of development and drew ire from creationists and others opposed to evolutionary science.

But it wasn’t until the 1930s that a scientist, Arthur T. Hertig, collaborated with a technician, Miriam Menkin, and a gynecologist, John Rock, to view the first fertilized egg.

To ‘harvest’ elusive embryos, Rock recruited married women under 45 with at least two children who were scheduled for hysterectomy. They were asked to keep diaries of their periods, body temperature and sexual intercourse. Rock’s assistant Miriam Menkin admitted that she hinted to the patients that it would be helpful if they had sex before the operation, which was scheduled to follow ovulation closely. Data from the women’s diaries were combined with the morphology of the embryo and changes in the uterine lining specific to each day of the menstrual cycle to date specimens unusually precisely. At the time, no one involved regarded the procedure as an artificial abortion; once it was seen in this way, the work became impossible to repeat.

Of course, the anti-abortion movement has never been shy about taking advantage of discoveries, technology and even photographic images they opposed, or would have opposed, for their own ends.

‘In our presentation, we would show the eighteen-week LIFE Magazine cover, and ask, is this being human? Subsequently, we will show very human looking babies at sixteen, fourteen, twelve, and eleven weeks (…) We will then show them one more visual at six weeks, and then we’ll show no visuals under six weeks (…) We will not show visuals under six weeks, because we feel that if we do, the audience may change their minds’, instructed the ‘pro-life’ campaigner Barbara Willke in her 1973 manual, How to teach the pro-life story.

Yes, goodness knows, we wouldn’t want people to have enough information to choose for themselves!

Making Visible Embryos [University of Cambridge via New Scientist]

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