Anti-abortionists mobilized images of embryos and fetuses in their political struggle.
From the late 1960s, campaigns to legalize abortion succeeded in most Western countries. Inspired by the second wave of feminism, fears of overpopulation and the thalidomide disaster, anti-abortion laws were repealed in Britain in 1967, the United States in 1973 and France in 1975. But groups for whom this challenged deeply-held and once taken-for-granted beliefs now organized to oppose abortion. Once used by campaigners for decriminalization, images of embryos and fetuses were appropriated to argue for the continuity and inviolability of human life from conception.
This originally American visual culture harks back to the use of images of children in the movements against the Vietnam War and nuclear power, but ‘pro-life’ politics leaned to the right from the start. The video Silent Scream, which claimed to provide an ultrasound window into the suffering of a 12-week fetus during abortion, was shown in Ronald Reagan’s White House. Feminists and medical experts accused its makers of distortion. Visual culture was at the centre of the new politics of reproduction.
Demonstrating for the legalization of abortion, 1967
‘How to teach the pro-life story’, 1973