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The Dishonest Images of the Anti-Abortion Movement 

Anti-abortion activists don’t seem to care about what a fetus actually looks like

By the entrance to the 7 train at Vernon Boulevard Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, a conspicuous, pink billboard looms large. On it, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed baby, expanded to unreal dimensions, gazes out at the viewer, wide-eyed. We understand that the baby has been assigned female, because she is depicted wearing a fluffy white headband, which sits atop her yellow blonde hair like an askew halo. We also understand that the text accompanying this image, rendered childlike in cartoonish pink font, is imagined to be the language this baby would use, were she able to speak: “WHAT?” the text reads. “I could feel PAIN before I was born.” Beneath these lines appears the 1800 number for the anti-abortion organization Prolife Across America, alongside a question — “ Need help?” — which, under different circumstances, might read as benign.

The advertisement incorporates a number of visual and discursive strategies commonly deployed by abortion rights opponents. It relies, for instance, on oversimplified and misleading rhetoric as the vehicle for its messaging, a tactic identifiable across the spectrum of anti-abortion propaganda. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a fetus is incapable of feeling pain prior to 29-30 weeks of gestation, and per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, 98.7% of abortions in the United States were performed prior to 21 weeks. Individuals who seek abortion after the first trimester often do so in response to the discovery of fetal anomalies that would risk the viability of the fetus’ survival outside of the womb, or because the pregnancy presents a threat to the pregnant person’s health or life. Moreover, those who seek later abortions often report that “logistical delays” (e.g., difficulty finding a provider or securing funds for an abortion) prevented them from having the procedure earlier in their pregnancy. (Notably, tactics adopted by abortion rights opponents commonly include efforts to make abortion both practically and financially inaccessible). But of course, it is difficult to distill the messy contexts in which people terminate or proceed with pregnancy into a pithy billboard slogan.

The billboard also offers a semi-subtle nod to a recent trend in anti-abortion activism, in which the battle to abolish abortion rights is twisted into a feminist act. In this misleading rendering, anti-abortion activists are fighting for the rights of unborn girls in the womb. The image relies on overt gendering of the baby, bolstered by the headband — a decidedly cherubic detail, to boot — and traditionally feminine colors. Moreover, the rhetoric functions to construct abortion rights opponents as those who give voice to the voiceless, positioning babies (or more accurately, fetuses, but the line between the two is intentionally blurred) as victims of oppression. Indeed, the selection of this baby — a baby who, we are to imagine, will one day grow up to be a white woman — arguably provides us with some ideas about how those on the cultural right seek to communicate notions of innocence and victimhood.

It is the baby, of course, who is the central feature of this advertisement. This argument against abortion requires absolute belief in the assertion that abortion is the murder of babies, and opponents of reproductive choice have long embraced the idea that spotlighting images of babies is a useful way to get this point across. It is, however, fundamentally dishonest. The baby depicted on this billboard looks to be approximately four months old, and not a single abortion has ever been performed on a four month old baby. Logically speaking, it would make equal sense for the billboard to portray, say, a forty year old man reflecting upon the phenomenon of fetal pain, but of course, this wouldn’t work. The efficacy of campaigns against abortion rights necessitates that personification of the fetus be taken as fact, and opponents of abortion rights have argued in favor of this construction by insisting that there is no meaningful distinction between an embryo, a fetus, and a baby. [1]

But if it is undeniable that a fetus is a baby, and abortion, therefore is the murder of babies, why do abortion campaigns not centralize the image of the fetus at eight weeks of gestation, when two thirds of abortions in the United States take place? The answer is obvious. At this stage of development, the fetus – bean-like, measuring under an inch and weighing less than an ounce — hardly resembles a baby at all.

To be clear, my argument is not that visual similarity between a fetus and a baby should function as the metric by which we determine the moral acceptability of abortion. This imagery highlights a blatant unwillingness, on the part of the cultural right, to engage in responsible, honest practices when constructing and communicating its political message. This refusal of transparency, as well as the distortion of scientifically and medically substantiated information, is endemic across the movement to restrict reproductive freedom. Opponents of abortion rights lie — to select just a few examples — about the emotional and psychological effects of abortionsupposed links between abortions and breast cancer, and the relationship between abortion and the eugenics movement. The list, depressingly, goes on.

It is hard not to suspect that this proliferation of misinformation is willfully designed to mask the dubious evidence on which the “‘pro-life”’ argument rests. It is, of course, anyone’s right to believe that God sanctifies an embryo at the moment of conception, imbuing it with a unique, human soul. And it is also, of course, no one’s right to restrict access to healthcare based on a medically and scientifically unsubstantiated belief. Whether one conceptualizes fetal loss, either through abortion or miscarriage — and it is worth noting that the space between the two is not nearly as vast as our cultural discourse would suggest — as the death of a soul has far more to do with one’s beliefs about metaphysics than it does with the sort of critical thinking skills necessary to make just and humane legal decisions. Arguably, opponents to abortion rights understand this, and thus seek to imbue their campaigns with false claims to knowledge in an attempt to legitimize an argument that is, at its core, religious, and propped up by a restrictive ideology of gender that constructs “‘women”’ and “‘mothers”’ as effectively synonymous.

In the era of alternative facts, it is difficult to discern how to respond to the irresponsible and destructive messaging of those on the cultural right. If Donald Trump can proclaim on national television that doctors are “ripping babies out of the womb” and, for all intents and purposes, get away with it, having reality on one’s side might offer minimal solace. But perhaps it is not solace which is required at this moment, but instead the motivation to act, and to react against the increasingly accelerated destruction of reproductive choice. And fortunately, not only is reality on our side, the numbers are, too.

Laura Hooberman received her MA in psychology from The New School for Social Research and is a PhD candidate in critical social/personality psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY.


[1] Petchesky, R. (1987). Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction. Feminist Studies, 13(2), 263-292. doi:10.2307/3177802

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