The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Fetal Imaginings

The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Fetal Imaginings June 30, 2016

By word of apology to my regular readers: I got sick, and then I started working on a post about the Catholic Church’s opposition to statute of limitation reform, and that piece got longer and longer and more and more avenues opened up, and I still have more research to do for it, so I’m turning it into a series for next week. For today, I’m dusting off a post I saved in drafts some time ago and forgot about. 

Nearly 66% of abortions happen in the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Another 26% happen between weeks nine and thirteen. Only 1.3% of abortions take place after week 20, the halfway point of pregnancy. And yet, anti-abortion activists frequently produce and share images and advertisements like this one:

That fetus is in the third trimester, perhaps even in the ninth month of pregnancy. Abortions at that stage are very rare. Instead, as mentioned above, two-thirds of abortions happen during or before the eighth week of pregnancy. What does an embryo (it’s not a fetus yet) look like at the eighth week? Like this:

Keep in mind that by the time an embryo looks as shown in the image above, two-thirds of abortions have already taken place. And yet, anti-abortion advertisements typically suggest a very different picture.

But it gets much, much worse.

That’s . . . not . . . what?!

It may just be me, but that baby doesn’t look unborn.

That’s . . . not . . . you know what, never mind.

It is absolutely true that a fetus is not a baby until it is born. That’s kind of how the English language (and scientific terminology) work. But we’re all clear that people don’t just go out and have third trimester abortions, right?

That’s . . . wait, what exactly is that baby on?!

Imagery matters. Most Americans are queazy about the idea of ending the life of a third trimester fetus. I recently had a conservative individual tell me that he was against abortion after twenty weeks except in case of rape, incest, life of the mother, or serious fetal defect, and that that made him pro-life. I stared. I told him that the best way to prevent late-term aboritons that might take place for other reasons is to make first trimester abortions more available through pulling back TRAP laws, and he agreed with that—and yet still thought himself pro-life, presumably because of imagery like that above, which suggests that women are going out and having third trimester abortions willy nilly. They’re not.

The further along a woman has an abortion, the greater the risks and cost involved. It is in any woman’s best interest to have an abortion as early as possible. According to a study previewed by the Guttmacher Institute:

Removing the many existing barriers to early abortion services could reduce the number of second-trimester abortions, particularly among black women and those with less education. For women needing second-trimester procedures, having health insurance or other financial resources to pay for abortion services is especially important.

The best way to prevent second or third trimester abortions is to increase education about pregnancy symptoms, decrease the financial cost of abortion, increase the ease of access to clinics, and decrease stigma surrounding abortion (which makes many women feel the need to hide clinic visits, making planning more difficult). Restricting abortion across the board is actually one of the worst things to do, if one wants to decrease the number of abortions performed after the first trimester.

And that, perhaps, is the central conceit—that anti-abortion activists are images of second and third trimester fetuses (and also babies) to convince the public to support abortion restrictions that in practice increase second and third trimester abortions.

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