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Competing Views (and Images) of Embryos

Several years ago, Cynthia Gorney published a piece in Harpers magazine about the use of images of the fetus in the battle over abortion.   The focus of her article was, in part, the pen and ink drawings by Jenny Westberg depicting partial birth abortion   and which were effectively mobilized to pass the ban that the Supreme Court just upheld. More recently, Time magazine did a cover story on a new and more pastoral approach among prolife advocates to discourage abortions. The cover of this issue (February 26, 2007), displayed the image of a human hand in which rested four, scale models of fetuses at different stages of development. 

Images of embryos and fetuses have, of course, been ubiquitous in public debates about abortion. Mostly these images have been deployed to induce fear or guilt, but, as the Time magazine story made clear, sometimes images are used to different ends.

Whether the use of images among prolife advocates has been positive or negative, the images themselves have been intended to depict the embryo, from conception on, as a tiny person.


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It is worth noting, however, that embryos have been depicted in other ways.  Consider, for example, the work of the British artist Helen Chadwick. Her interest in images of the embryo grew out of her (art) residency at the Kings College/> Hospital/> reproductive technology clinic in London/>/>.  Chadwick was struck by the fact that when the physicians decided which IVF embryos to place into a womans uterus, they had no scientific criteria for choosing.  Instead, they used aesthetic criteria that were reminiscent of the language of jewelers.   They talked, for example, about the clarity and the color of the cells.  With this in mind, she began to photograph embryos and to arrange the photographs into pieces of jewelry.


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Or consider Hans Danusers photographs of frozen embryos.


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Many will find these unfamiliar images of the embryo troubling, but it is important to know that, like everything else in the abortion debate, the iconic status of embryos is deeply contested.

Many will find these unfamiliar images of the embryo troubling, but it is important to know that, like everything else in the abortion debate, the iconic status of embryos is deeply contested.

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Commenting Guidelines

I think this is very helpful, Paul. In moments of honesty some bishops will say something like: "No one has ever proven that the embryo is not a full human being." There is no certainty on the right to life side. It is just an easy issue for too many who will never have to confront the matter. This is why it is in particular a woman's issue. The Right to Life movement is winning the image war. But the question is: Can Madison avenue make them right?

Bill,There is nothing inconsistent about this hypothetical "bishops'" statement, It seems to me that the burden is on the one who seeks to kill something to prove that it is not a human being.By any biological definition, a fetus or an embryo is alive. And by any definition abortion kills an embryo or fetus. Further, by any definition, a human fetus or embryo is biologically human.Further, it seems to me that if a fetus can literally be fully recognized as a human person the moment he or she is born, and that its ability to survive as such 30 minutes or even 10 days before it is born would, medically and biologically be the same, then at a bare minimum, it must be a human person at some point before it is born. If it is not, and its humanity is based on when it is born, then it seems to me that being a human person is not a fact, or more importantly, a Gift of God, but just some human designation assigned based on an arbitrarily timed event.This is the train of thought that began to push me to a pro-life position long before I took my faith seriously. So you are right, there is no certainty - that's why I am pro-life.As to the women's issue position, it seems to me that that is a cop out. I don't have to have my own position because of a Y chromosome, or that the only correct position is to support a woman's "right." This is not a women's rights issue, it is a human rights issue. Don't you find it interesting that in countries like China and India, it is baby girls who are being selectively aborted by the millions? There's a women's issue for you.Finally - Madison Avenue?!?!? You have to be kidding. Almost every entertainment, media, jounalistic, artistic, and even business elite in this country is on the other side. Yeah - we have Mel Gibson - whoop-di-doo.There is no movement more based in the common people in this country than the pro-life movement. It has less money and less influence in the halls of power than its opposition. When the March for Life winds through Washington it is not headed up by Hollywood celebs and music stars but with students and housewives and priests and sisters and small business owners and factory workers.If they are winning the "image war," which is not certain, its because the image of death is less appealing. Madison Avenue - please

Sean,I can't argue with you with reference to your description of Madison Avenue in general. What I refer to is how using the image of a baby's skull being broken is an effective tool for the Right to Life propagators.For the same reason the Bush White House campaigned vigorously to keep the images of war off the front pages so that public opinion would not be influenced.As you admit there is no certainty. That is why I am outraged that there is barely one percent the effort, compared to the unborn, given to those five million (certain) children who die every year from preventable causes.

I've always found it interesting that folks already born and on their own (or close to it) have no problem identifying when a biologically human "product" somehow "becomes a human being." Indeed, if only the unborn were somehow able to have a "say" in this matter. I do have a problem with a society that allows children to die every year from preventable diseases. I have this same problem with allowing another adult to kill an unborn human offspring for whatever reason.

Hello Joseph (and all),"Indeed, if only the unborn were somehow able to have a "say" in this matter."What I find remarkable is how so many in my profession think that the fact that the unborn are unable to have a say in the matter is proof that the rest of us owe them nothing, not even restraint from killing or otherwise exploiting them. At least the honest ones admit that if the ability to lodge a complaint or otherwise contribute to a discussion is a prerequisite for receiving anything from others in society, then infants, some of the very elderly, and severely disabled individuals such as Ashley, who was discussed in a recent issue of Commonweal, are also owed nothing. If I interpret you correctly, you agree with Bill that it isn't consistent to voice opposition to abortion and say nothing about children who die from preventable diseases. I think that's exactly right (assuming I read you correctly), but I also think it's not hard to explain why someone would protest against abortion and not against the plight of ill and curable children. One might think that more restrictive abortion laws will bring one no personal cost, while more provision for the cure of ill children will incur one some personal cost, perhaps in tax dollars.

Peter, your interpretation is correct. Indeed, there is still a widespread perception "out there" that pro-lifers will spare nothing to get induced abortion outlawed but that these same folks will vote against any social/health legislation for the reason you mention. Whether such a perception was ever once true or still true, etc., I must confess my ignorance. I don't know what polling has shown over the years in this area.

The church used to promulgate the 'whole fabric' concept regarding the sacredness of all human life. The last time I saw the conc\ept mentioned was a contemptuous reference in the National Review.That aside, claims about how under-financed the anti-abortion movement is are hard to believe considering the widespread support for the issue among well-healed televangelists and the Republican rank and file.

Hello Joseph (and all),"Indeed, there is still a widespread perception "out there" that pro-lifers will spare nothing to get induced abortion outlawed but that these same folks will vote against any social/health legislation for the reason you mention."There may also be a stereotype that generally those who oppose abortion favor capital punishment. Not that long ago in a rare heated exchange with a graduate student, we clashed because he (an abortion rights activist) asserted that all opponents of abortion favor capital punishment. Plainly, the Vatican's current position on capital punishment doesn't reach everybody."Whether such a perception was ever once true or still true, etc., I must confess my ignorance. I don't know what polling has shown over the years in this area."I'm equally ignorant. I simply don't know what, if any, credible research has been done on these questions. Can any other contributors help us out here?