Between a patient and a late abortion. Obstetricians had traditionally assumed that what was good for mother was good for baby. But as campaigners fought to legalize abortion, a new medical discipline centred on the fetus as a patient in its own right. In the early 1960s, the obstetrician and anti-abortion activist William Liley developed a transfusion procedure to protect rhesus-positive fetuses of rhesus-negative mothers. By the 1980s, fetal medicine had moved from transfusions to massively invasive surgery. The discipline conceptualized the fetus as an autonomous being enclosed in a separate and occasionally harmful maternal receptacle. Yet the uses of tools developed for fetal protection departed from their original aims. Amniocentesis, the technique of drawing off amniotic fluid through a hollow catheter, was originally for treatment and diagnosis. Under liberal abortion laws and with its safety improved by ultrasound guidance, it became a screening method for prenatal diagnosis of disorders framed as sufficient grounds for late ‘termination’. Was the fetus a patient or a potential abortion?

Abortion wars

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Inspired by the second wave of feminism, fears of overpopulation and the thalidomide disaster, anti-abortion laws were repealed in Britain in 1967, the United States in 1973 and France in 1975.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