Viral Photos Show What Early Abortions Actually Look Like

These are embryos at six and nine weeks, respectively—which anti-abortion activists are trying to pass off as full people.

Viral Photos Show What Early Abortions Actually Look Like
Screenshot:MYA Network (Fair Use)

The photos above are of pregnancy tissue from abortions done at six and nine weeks of pregnancy, respectively. Currently, 14 states ban abortion at least this early in gestation, and more will pass bans next year. Even at nine weeks, the nascent embryo inside this tissue isn’t visible to the naked eye.

On Wednesday, the Guardian published these photos from abortions before 10 weeks of pregnancy, and they went viral. The petri dish images are from the group MYA Network—which includes abortion providers, activists, and patients—and show tissues from early abortions done via manual uterine aspiration, a five-minute procedure that involves a handheld device. The providers rinsed off menstrual lining and blood before taking the photos of what’s known as the gestational sac, the precursor to the amniotic sac. (The group also published the photos on their website.)

Joan Fleischman, co-founder of MYA Network and a family medicine doctor who’s provided abortion care for more than 25 years, told the Guardian that patients who ask to see the tissue after their procedure are often stunned. “You can literally feel the tension come down. People have been on this emotional roller coaster,” she said. “They’re like, ‘You’re kidding. This is all that was?’”

After seeing the same reaction so often, Fleischman decided that the public deserved to see photos. “I realized how much the imagery on the internet and on placards—showing human-like qualities at this early stage of development—has really permeated the culture. People almost don’t believe this is what comes out.”

Anti-abortion activists have for decades shown up outside abortion clinics, statehouses, and the Supreme Court with blown-up photos of bloody fetuses of unknown gestational age. Crisis pregnancy centers are notorious for handing out little plastic fetuses in an attempt to dissuade people from having abortions. And when these activists do label photos or models, they abandon the medical definition of pregnancy as beginning from a person’s last menstrual period. Instead they define pregnancy as starting two weeks later, at fertilization. Translation: When an anti-abortion group shows a photo of a “15-week fetus,” it’s actually a pregnancy that’s 17 weeks along—and people internalize these images, which is the point.

Both the MYA photos and the public reaction to them have been very illuminating. Writer Jessica Valenti wrote on Twitter that people are calling her a liar.

People have responded in disbelief, citing the (magnified) images they’ve seen on ultrasounds. Fleischman told The Guardian that people usually see gestational development photos created by people who expect the pregnancy will be carried to term. “A lot of early pregnancy images are driven by people who are against abortion and feel that life begins at conception, or by prenatal enthusiasts who want women to be excited about their pregnancy. What about people who aren’t?”

Think of the illustrations on pregnancy and medical websites. The Mayo Clinic, one of the preeminent medical organizations in the country, shows week-by-week illustrations of embryonic and fetal development without any context of scale, like the rulers in the MYA photos. One person online said the photos are what her miscarriage looked like, rather than “a flesh-toned gummy bear”—referring to people’s mental picture of a fetus thanks to medical illustrations.

MYA also addressed why people might see something else at home, writing: “If you are taking abortion pills at home or having a miscarriage, what you see will look different. Most people will experience a heavy period which may include blood clots of varying sizes, so it can be difficult to see the pregnancy tissue unless you purposefully look for it. If you are over 9 weeks pregnant and choose to look, you may see an early embryo.”

Yes, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 80 percent of abortions are done at or before 10 weeks, like the abortions in these photos. And while people deserve access to abortions throughout pregnancy, it doesn’t bode well that we’re fighting online about whether these early abortion pictures are real.

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