A couple of days ago, I ran across a pro-life (as in, anti-abortion) meme on Facebook:
For those of you who can’t see it, it’s a picture of a crystal statue of a pregnant woman in the ‘hand resting on belly’ pose. In her abdomen, curled into fetal position, there is what appears from the development level and general cleanliness to be a baby from some point after birth but which I assume is actually meant to be a highly sanitised version of a full-term fetus. The caption reads: ‘Imagine a world where a mother’s belly is made of crystal. Would this make a difference?‘ (No, I don’t quite get what the deal is with the random emphases.)
My first thought, as always on seeing the ‘transparent abdomen’ meme, was ‘Well, if getting naked together meant getting a good look at a woman’s internal organs, then there would probably be less heterosexual sex happening, hence fewer unplanned pregnancies, so I suppose in that sense there’d be a difference’. Because this meme specified crystal as opposed to non-specific transparent material, I went on to have a few more thoughts:
- But crystal can’t stretch. Wouldn’t pregnant people all just end up miscarrying somewhere early in the second trimester, when the fetus had no room to grow?
- Also, for this meme to work at all, we have to hypothesise that part of the pregnant person’s uterus would be crystal as well. Crystal can’t contract either. Wouldn’t this end up with either the crystal being shattered by uterine contractions, or the rest of the uterine wall ripping away from the crystal segment and causing a uterine rupture? Neither sounds like a good thing to have happening inside someone’s abdomen.
- Also… holy crap, are pro-lifers actually passing around a meme aimed at getting us to picture women as fragile ornaments who literally have no internal existence other than gestating? Seriously?
But, yes, yes, I know; none of this is addressing the point the author of this meme actually wanted to make. So let’s rewrite it in a way that gets at the point a little better, then answer that.
If pregnant people could somehow see exactly what the embryo or fetus within them looked like, at every point throughout gestation… how would that affect the chances of them seeking abortion?
I’m not sure this would work out quite the way that the pro-lifers passing along this meme would like to think.
First of all, of course, there’s the fact that a lot of the people seeking abortion are desperate enough that knowing what the fetus looks like doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. After all, it’s not as though Operation Rescue have much success with their tactic of waving fetal pictures/models at people on their way into abortion clinics. If you’re in a situation where having a baby is going to tie you further into an abusive relationship or render you unable to pay for the basics for the children you already have or shoot down your one chance at getting an education or any of the many, many reasons why continuing a pregnancy could have terrible consequences for the pregnant person, then the details of exactly what your embryo/fetus looks like right now are probably going to be very low on your list of potential deciding factors.
But, secondly, there’s the fact that most people seeking abortion are doing so early in pregnancy. In the UK, almost 90% of abortions take place by or before 10 weeks gestation, which means that the majority of decisions are made before then. There are always going to be exceptions; sometimes people don’t realise they’re pregnant until later on (which is, by the way, a point on which I would have thought embryo/fetal visibility would be helpful; I should think one consequence of ‘what if you could see your own fetus’ would be that people would be less likely to miss an early pregnancy, and hence an even higher proportion of abortions would take place in the early weeks), sometimes the pregnant person’s circumstances drastically change in some way, and some abortions are on grounds of fetal disability, which normally can’t be diagnosed till at least 10 weeks gestation and often later. But, overall, most pregnant people making the decision about whether to have abortions are making that decision at a gestationally early stage.
Now, that’s not the bit of embryonic development that pro-lifers want to show people. You know how I mentioned the very late gestation of the fetus in the picture above? That isn’t because someone accidentally copied the wrong picture. It’s because pro-lifers want the pictures they use to be thoroughly into the developmental stage where the appearance brings out our automatic reaction of ‘Baby! Must protect!’ The fetuses shown in pro-life propaganda are almost all from the 10-weeks-or-later stage, with a heavy emphasis on ‘later’; the majority are second or third trimester. Pro-lifers want abortion banned from conception on, but that isn’t reflected in their selection of photos.
And what that means is that if every pregnant person actually could see what the blastocyst/embryo/fetus inside them looked like at each stage, a significant part of pro-life propaganda would simply fall apart. I’m not sure the pictures pro-lifers use are that effective in convincing people anyway, but they’re really not going to be effective on someone who can see perfectly well for herself that what’s growing inside her right now looks a lot more like a so-small-it’s-hard-to-see-anyway version of this, this, or this.
Bottom line? I think the biggest effect of being able to see the fetus growing inside you would be that pro-life campaigners would suddenly find it a lot harder to get people to take them seriously, because the level of misrepresentation in their propaganda would become really obvious.
Finally, this seems like a good point to remember once again that ‘pro-life’ groups and political movements typically refuse to support the things that we know do make a difference to abortion rates. If you happen to be a pro-lifer who supports the above ‘crystal bellies’ meme, ask yourself if you also support the idea of 1. making contraception easily and widely available to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies and 2. making sure there’s an excellent social safety net with widely available/affordable childcare and health care to avoid being driven to abort a pregnancy for financial reasons. If you do, then great, because not only have both of these approaches got other advantages but they’re also both evidence-supported ways of reducing the rate of abortion. If you’re against abortion but don’t support those two ideas, then it would be a good idea to consider what your motives really are.