The Semiotics of a Movement: Fetal Imagery and the Lure of the Unseen

Posted inPolitical Design

I have a folder on my computer named Fetal Imagery. Never in my life did I think I would write those words, but with improvements in technology and a few enterprising photographers, I don’t have to leave my chair to find out what the inside of a womb might look like. I can search online mentions in anti-abortion propaganda, sonograms posted by expectant parents, Damien Hirst sculptures, medical textbook illustrations, all the way back to narratives from ancient texts. Stories of Buddha described him as encased in a palace before birth. Rabbinic literature suggests Jacob’s religious devotion was already developing while inside his mother’s womb. Mesoamericans developed a range of symbols to portray the embryo. Our preoccupation with life before birth is not new. But unlike the zoomed-in photographs we see today, older renditions were symbolic in nature. They conjured something more mythical than the ostensibly representative image from an ultrasound. An illustration carved in stone is art. A photograph is the illusion of reality.

Sallie Han, an anthropologist who studies reproduction and kinship, presents our modern-day fascination with fetal photography as ocularcentrism: the outsized emphasis our society places on seeing. It’s everywhere. I see what you’re saying. Do you really see me? Did you see those tiny little fingernails? Photographs bind people together by permitting access to the formerly inaccessible, for good or for evil. They permit a sort of voyeurism that can range from space exploration to what your neighbor looked like walking her dog eight years ago. In Susan Sontag’s seminal 1973 essay, Photography, she writes that photographs “help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” What could one be more unknowable than the life-sustaining reproduction cycle that grows within the human body? Parents crowd around for evidence of what they have created, proof that a copy is developing. They are decorated in photo albums and displayed for visitors: look, our son’s feet are real! Han argues that because fetal feet are so similar to small human feet, we recognize miniature feet and our visual minds fill out an entire human. This isn’t surprising: Precious Feet pins, inspired by an image of fetal feet in the newspaper, gained popularity as a symbol of the pro-life movement, and have been resurrected in different forms ever since. Still, prior to the 1960s, few would go so far to broadcast images of their sonograph. There was no public fetus. In 1965, Life Magazine changed that.

The magazine featured an enlarged fetus at five months, twice its actual size. It sold 8 million copies in just a few days. Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson took the photo. He took many. The fetuses he captured were primarily aborted and miscarried and belonged to several sets of parents. They were immediately transferred to a jar of amniotic fluid, deliberately arranged in a studio setup with complimentary lighting and colors, and photographed with macro lenses. Nilsson had taken his very first pictures of embryos in 1953 and shown them to Life editors while on assignment in New York. The editors were excited by his vision for a full color photographic series on development, from fertilization to birth, and true to their word, they published the reproduction story when he returned with the photos 12 years later. Nilsson did not have strong political opinions; it was an artistic investigation, never intended to be an X-ray of life. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, his stepdaughter Anne Fjellström recalled visiting London with him in the ‘80s, where they saw anti-abortion posters covered in his images. She said he was shocked; he had no idea.

Political protests weren’t the only domain through which Nilsson’s photographs pervaded the public— they made their way to court in Texas when the defense team of Roe v. Wade used the same photos to support their 1971 case. Lawyers presented the visuals, then went on to describe the fetal development process in terms of ears, hands, toes, fingernails, and eyelids, noting that in the third month, “the child’s face becomes much prettier.”  Many followed in splaying Nilsson’s images all over their public lecture slides, newspapers, and billboards, but none more prominently than pro-life activists and lecturers Barbara and John Willke.

The Willkes became crusaders of the image-first approach now associated with the pro-life movement. Barbara called the 1965 Life cover scientific and persuasive, recalling the “tremor in the audience” that would sound as she displayed the accompanying photos in her lectures.  Fetal imagery became a useful political tactic precisely because of its very inaccessibility, ambiguity, and visual resonance. And the Willkes went on to disseminate hundreds of images— enough to fill folders 50 years later.

Divya Mehra is currently a writer and artist-in-residence at NYU Tisch. She teaches classes on visual symbolism and experimental storytelling. She holds degrees in Art + Technology and Economics and previously worked in strategy consulting.


For more info:

Sasson, Vanessa R., and Jane Marie Law. Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.Gorney, Cynthia. Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars. Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Artwork by the author.