The ethics of using photos of aborted fetuses, and where do they come from?

Last week was Respect Life Week on my campus.  Needless to say, as the president of the pro-choice group, this is not my favorite week of the year.  But I also enjoy the challenge of trying to reach out to people on the opposite end of the political spectrum; among other events, I attended a dinner where I tried to steer the conversation away from personhood and on to how we can actually reduce the numbers of abortions (because isn’t that what we all really want, when we stop casting it in terms of murder?). 

The pro-lifers had created a display of photos of fetuses at different stages of development and placed them outside the student center, in one of the highest-traffic areas of campus.  Mid-week, I noticed that a few of them were gone.  It turned out that the posters had been vandalized, torn off their plywood mounts.  “Debate with words, not soft-focus photography,” was scrawled across one of the mounts in black ink.

Asked to comment on the vandalism, of course I said that I was disappointed that a student would resort to vandalizing another student’s display in order to make a point.  People on my campus have a lot of trouble owning their words and actions, and I think action was reflective of that unfortunate tendency.  But I’ve also been thinking about the use of these photos of fetuses – and the ones that are far more extreme than the ones used by my campus’ pro-life group, the photos that depict aborted fetuses.  These photos scream from billboards, pamphlets and bus sides; they were infamously pasted to murdered pro-life activist James Pouillon’s protest signs.  The New York Times‘ “Lens” blog had an extremely interesting piece on October 9 about how these photos are taken.  It got me thinking about the ethics of using these photos for the purposes of activism.

The author of the blog post, Damien Cave, talked to a woman who had intimate experience with retrieval and photography of aborted fetuses, Monica Migliorino Miller, a professor of theology at Madonna University and the director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society.  Migliorino Miller had at one point been in possession of boxes of aborted fetuses that she had retrieved, along with other pro-life activists, from a loading dock in suburban Chicago.  These were later buried by pro-life activists in a service presided over by the archbishop of Chicago.  She has also found aborted fetuses in dumpsters behind Chicago and Michigan abortion clinics, leading to investigations (in the case of the Michigan clinics) of the companies’ removal processes.  It was these incidents that inspired Migliorino Miller to start taking pictures of the fetuses.  “We felt it was very important to make a record of the reality of abortion,” she said.

She defended the protesters’ right to use the images, saying, “In order to see the humanity and beauty of something so small, you have to enlarge it,” she said. “Otherwise, the baby is invisible and dismissed.”  Her views on the use of the images has evolved, saying that she doesn’t think they’re appropriate for deliberate direction at children because they can’t “intellectualize” them.

To me, however, the use of images of aborted fetuses smacks of the language in the recent Oklahoma law that will require doctors to post information online about whether anesthetic was used during every abortion performed in the state, or whether a “live baby” was born from the abortion.  Inevitably, it privileges fetal rights over maternal rights and does not acknowledge the fact that most abortions take place during the first trimester, when the fetus does not remotely resemble the photos of late-stage abortions that are commonly used by protesters.

What was most shocking to me, though, was that sometimes these photos don’t even depict aborted fetuses.  One of the most famous photos used by the pro-life movement is of a fetus named Malachi, found in Dallas in 1993 (trigger warning: the linked photo of Malachi is extremely graphic).  The fetuses were “put together” by a Dallas doctor; there is footage (not available online) of the doctor weeping as he did so.  What’s left out is the fact that there was no date on the jar where the fetuses were found, or any evidence that the damage done to the fetus was not from simple decomposition.  There is also no proof that Malachi was even an aborted fetus; “he” could have been miscarried.

This information, to me, is enough reason to stop using these images.  They are incredibly powerful photos, which is of course why they’re employed by the pro-life movement, but their effect is often to deter women from obtaining abortions, or to shame and guilt them when they do so.  They also make an impact on legislators who make crucial decisions about a woman’s right to choose.  The idea that these images might not be of aborted fetuses, or even that they don’t represent the vast number of abortions, is something that the pro-life movement needs to consider when they ponder the ethics of using these photos, something that I hope they do.  My conclusion would be that these “guerilla” missions to retrieve fetuses from clinics are sloppy, and use sentiment to deny women their rights.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Jamie T.
Past Member 5 years ago

I was at the Abortion clinic the day Malachi was found, and was also present with the doctor as he put Malachi together. I also held him in my hands, he and his story is very much true, and very real!

Julia J.
Julia W7 years ago

I wouldn't mind them using the images at all if they were honest about them. So many pro-lifers either lie about or just don't understand fetal development. But try to show them, even from impartial evidence, and they just claim you're a baby-killing planned parenthood shill.

We'll never be able to have reasonable debate in this country until we're all using the same facts. And until all the facts actually ARE facts.

Colleen F.
Colleen F7 years ago

I'm pro-life and anti-death penalty, and any sort of other killing of human life.

And someone please correct me, but by purely scientific definition, isn't a bundle of human cells which lives on its own a human being?

Abo Ahmed r.
Abo r8 years ago

Protect self and others, protect the fetus and children.

Wini A.
Wini A8 years ago

I'm coming to this discussion very late but feel I must say something. As many as 31% of women who become pregnant lose those pregnancies in the early pregnancy. Many of these women don't even know they are pregnant and believe the loss to be a late or heavy period. Since these are spontaneous abortions also called early pregnancy loss could be considered to acts of God, it seems to me that God has less respect for the idea that life begins at fertilization than the religious right and the right to life protestors. As for those who call themselves pro-life, I must quibble. If you're idea of being pro-life is to care only about a fetus, then you are simply anti-woman. To be pro-life you'd have to care about the fetus once it was born but you oppose welfare and aid to dependent children in large numbers. if you were pro-life, you'd have to be against the death penalty but most of you aren't. To be pro-life you'd have to be in favor of universal health care for all because a program like that would reduce illness and death, but by and large, you're not. if you were really pro-life you'd do everything you could to lower the rate of abortions but you generally oppose family planning and contraception. Please, for the sake of women and children everywhere, live and let live.

Jeanette H.
Jeanette H.8 years ago

As a staunch pro-lifer I too have concerns regarding the origins of these images, we have enough issues with the maniacs who claim to be members of our side without the medical accuracy of these photos being called into question.

Regardless, I'd rather images of "intact" embryos and foetuses are used, images that are both medically accurate (in order to refute the often used pro-choice argument of "its just a blob") and life affirming.

Of course, if the images are legally owned, and their source is verified I have no problem in the use of these photos. These images are abortion. This is what happens. (The woman's harm is harder to photograph).

And as I understand, there are images of women who died of claimed "illegal abortions" pre-Roe that were used with little question of their source or legality.

All in all, its a contentious issue. Welcome to the abortion debate.

mary k.
mary k8 years ago

we do worry about them, pray for them and try to help them. why don't the pro choice people do the same .

Tracy G.
Tracy G8 years ago

"Almost 11 million children die before their fifth birthday each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of these deaths."-CARE

Why don't you pro-lifers worry about saving these children. Or the ones that are abducted and murdered or sold for sex or labor. Stop judging others and trying to push your beliefs on everyone else.

mary k.
mary k8 years ago

have you ever thought about what would happen if nobody ate meat?

Melanie B.
Hendrik Bonthuys8 years ago

My God - the majority of you make me damn sick!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Don't get me wrong I don't think abortion is right by no means but I also don't think it is wrong if the baby was to have severe complications or something like that!
You are all so busy shouting that it is a life, but for God's sake, have you ever stopped to think about all the millions of poor animals that get killed everyday for meat - for humans???
And I do not for one second believe that all you anti abortionists are vegans!!! THINK ABOUT IT FOR A MINUTE!!!!
As you all keep saying, a life is life, whether it is a humans or an animals!!