Why did early pregnancy pictures cause such a stir on TikTok?
When Jessica Valenti first decided to share photos of what early pregnancy looks like on TikTok, she knew the images would cause a stir. Since the official fall Roe v. WadeValenti has become a dedicated commentator on abortion rights, offering daily updates on the current state of abortion rights through her newsletter, Abortion every day. During the project, Valenti attracted plenty of trolls and angry comments — but none of that prepared her for the response to her early pregnancy TikTok on Oct. 19.
She expected to get some right-wing pushback — perhaps some anti-abortion types who would insist that if you zoom in on photos of amorphous pregnancy tissue, you’ll actually get a glimpse of a tiny person. What she didn’t expect was how many people — many who identify as pro-choice — would flood her comments insisting that the photos she shared were fake, digitally altered to make them look less human, and that she was spreading misinformation that would only hurt abortion rights groups.
The photos were not fake. Images came showing small white spots in petri dishes on an aqua blue background directly from abortion providers: specifically, from clinicians associated with MYA networkan organization working to normalize abortion care. In both The Guardian and on its own website, representatives of the MYA network explained the origin of the photos: they are actual pregnancies removed from abortion patients through a process called manual vacuum aspiration. They are washed of blood so that the pregnancy tissue is more visible. But other than that, there were no changes or manipulations. These little white spots were, as Valenti noted in her video, what the law deemed more valuable than the life of a pregnant person.
Over at The Guardian, Poppy Noor — a journalist who worked with the MYA Network to publish the photos — experienced something similar. In the process of fact-checking her story, she encountered a shockingly large number of editors—even editors who supported abortion rights—who doubted the authenticity of the photos. “At the beginning everyone was like, ‘Are we sure?’ If it really looked like that, how come it doesn’t look like that on the internet?” Noor recalls, describing it as a “gaslighting moment”.
“The level of misinformation is so high that people on all different sides are confused,” she said.
In the end, what won Noor’s team was trust in experts. “You talk to doctors and they say, ‘No, I literally took this off someone. I didn’t get a PhD in it. I didn’t change it. “This is what an abortion looks like at five, six, seven, eight, nine weeks,” explains Noor.
“The level of misinformation is so high that people on all different sides are confused.”
But most people don’t have an abortionist on call to answer questions about what early pregnancy looks like. In addition, many individuals will never experience an early abortion or see the products of an early abortion first hand. As a result, the general population has limited access to information about fetal development. There are, of course, photos of anti-abortion protesters, many of which depict second-trimester fetuses in the hope of dissuading potential abortion patients. But even ostensibly politically neutral sources come with a bit of bias: Information about early pregnancy is often designed with expectant parents in mind—people eager to connect and humanize the rapidly dividing cells inside them. As a result, there is an incentive to create charts of fetal development which do not show the proportional size of the embryo, exaggerating the resemblance of early pregnancy to a full-grown baby. There is a tendency to anthropomorphize the cluster of static in an early ultrasound or talk about “fetal heartbeats” when nothing resembling a heart has actually been built.
To Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the Abortion Storytelling Organization We testify, it’s understandable that people who want children would be eager to see a tiny cluster of cells as proto-humans. The problem is when that perspective is imposed on people who don’t want to be pregnant, when the excitement of one pregnant person is used to distort the information given to abortion seekers – or, for that matter, the medical information provided to the general public. “It’s not about the existence of the images themselves, it’s about the way they’re used to coerce people,” says Bracey Sherman.
That’s probably why these photos caused such a stir. Most pregnancy images are packaged in a way that emphasizes the humanity of the fetus: doctors decode blurry ultrasounds to indicate the beginnings of a head, arms, and trunk; we are trained to see future humans in the earliest stages of fetal development. The images provided by the MYA network strip away all magnification and all the storytelling that goes with it, to reveal the unvarnished image of a literal pile of cells.
For those who feel invested in the specialness, the sanctity of human pregnancies, it can feel unsettling to see the beginnings of human life presented in such an inconsiderate way. But for others, these images bring immense relief. Amid the harassment and angry emails, both Noor and Valenti received messages from many people who took great comfort in the photos. In some cases, “they were carrying a lot of shame and these pictures were very helpful,” says Noor. “Being able to see these images helped them understand their own experiences.”
Discussions about pregnancy and abortion will always be fraught. Besides the fact that questions like “when does life begin?” better left to philosophers than scientists, there is also the reality that a wanted pregnancy will always feel different from an unwanted one – that the potential life represented by a six-week gestational sac will be more human, more like a person, to someone who wants to welcome a child into their home.
“Being able to see these images helped them understand their own experiences.”
Valenti, who has terminated both wanted and unwanted pregnancies, is intimately familiar with the difference in these experiences. “I had one early abortion when I was in my late twenties, before I met my husband, and it wasn’t emotional for me. It was a very easy decision,” she says. “And then I had another early abortion when my daughter was 3.” This time, Valenti opted for a break due to health risks. During her first pregnancy, she developed severe preeclampsia and almost died. The idea of going through that again was terrifying, even though, she says, “I really wanted to have another baby and I really wanted my daughter to have a sibling.”
That second abortion gives her some empathy for those who see a tiny human in that pile of cells. “It didn’t matter to me how early the pregnancy was; It didn’t matter to me how visible or invisible this embryo was,” she says. “It was about this promise of life that I had in mind. And that is what was made [the abortion] hard for me.”
But even while those first few weeks of human development can feel dramatically different to people—or even to the same person in different circumstances—the one thing that shouldn’t be debated is what actually exists in the womb in the early weeks of pregnancy, when the vast majority of miscarriages occur. . It’s a tiny ball of tissue, small enough to fit in a petri dish. If we can’t accept that fact, then how can we have an honest conversation about pregnancy and abortion?
“Everybody thinks they know everything there is to know about abortion, but they really don’t know anything,” says Bracey Sherman. “And that’s what’s really hard.”
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