Encounters with embryos. A 1928 novel by the bestselling author Vicki Baum suggested how an emancipated woman might have used representations of embryos to think about her pregnancy. The heroine is an unmarried chemistry student called Helene Willfüer. Fearing that she is pregnant, an embarrassed Helene borrows—she cannot afford to buy—an illustrated book from a friendly bookseller and this confirms her worst fears. Later, having accepted her condition, she visits a university collection of ‘small embryos’ in alcohol and for a ‘long and very quiet hour’ observes them, as she imagines, striving to develop.

Rationalizing reproduction

Early twentieth-century projects to organize reproduction scientifically went hand in hand with its redescription in terms of the new embryology.

People have always regulated their fertility with more or less success, but the modern separation of sex and reproduction is unusual in relying on scientific knowledge and technology. Campaigners for birth-control reform and sex education actively promoted an embryological vision of pregnancy. In Weimar Germany especially, visual aids displayed embryos in museums, hygiene exhibitions and public lectures. Magazines and popular books on pregnancy, sex and marriage included embryological illustrations.

Yet court cases and interviews reveal that for a long time working-class women seeking abortions still tended to speak, not of eggs, fertilization and embryos, but about needing to restore an interrupted flow and rid themselves of a waste material.

Making embryo models at the German Hygiene Museum before 1945


Communist women demonstrating against the German anti-abortion law, 1928