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Why did images of early pregnancy cause such a social media firestorm?

Most people don’t know what early pregnancy actually looks like. That complicates abortion discussions.

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A petri dish sits on a blue background. Inside the petri dish are four small bright white clumps of tissue. The smallest is in the bottom left of the dish, and the largest is in the top right.
An image of early pregnancies from five weeks (bottom left) to eight weeks (top right). The tissue has been rinsed of blood and the menstrual lining has been removed, leaving only the gestational sac.
MYA Network/Dr. Joan Fleischman, MD, MPA

When Jessica Valenti first decided to share photos of what an early pregnancy looks like on TikTok, she knew that the images would cause a stir. Since the official fall of Roe v. Wade, Valenti has become a devoted abortion rights commentator, offering daily updates about the current state of abortion rights through her newsletter, Abortion Every Day. Over the course of the project, Valenti has attracted her fair share of trolls and angry commentary — but none of it prepared her for the response to her TikTok on early pregnancy on October 19th. 

She expected that she’d get some right-wing pushback — maybe some anti-abortion types who’d insist that if you zoomed in on the photos of amorphous pregnancy tissue, you’d actually get a glimpse of a tiny person. What she did not expect was how many people — many identifying as pro-choice — would flood her comments insisting that the photos she’d shared were fake, that they’d been digitally altered to look less human, and that she was spreading misinformation that would only hurt groups that support abortion rights.

The photos weren’t fake. The images, showing small white blobs in petri dishes set against an aqua blue background, came directly from abortion providers: specifically, from clinicians associated with the MYA Network, an organization working to normalize abortion care. In both The Guardian and on their own website, MYA Network representatives explained the origin of the photos: these were actual pregnancies removed from abortion patients with a process called manual vacuum aspiration. They’d been rinsed clean of blood in order to make the pregnancy tissue more visible. But other than that, there’d been no alteration or manipulation. These little white blobs were, as Valenti noted in her video, what the law had deemed more valuable than the life of a pregnant person.

Over at The Guardian, Poppy Noor — the journalist who worked with the MYA Network to  publish the photos — experienced something similar. In the fact-checking process on her story, she encountered a shockingly high number of editors — even editors who supported abortion rights — who doubted the veracity of the photos. “​​At the beginning, everybody was like, ‘Are we sure?’ If this really was what it looked like, how come it doesn’t look like that online?” Noor recalls, describing it as a moment where no one was quite sure whether they could believe their own eyes.  

“The level of misinformation is so high that people on all different sides have been confused,” she said.

Ultimately, what won Noor’s team over was trust in the experts. ”You speak to the doctors and they’re like, ‘No I literally removed this from somebody. I haven’t doctored it. I haven’t changed it. This is what an abortion looks like at five, six, seven, eight, nine weeks,’” Noor explains.

“The level of misinformation is so high that people on all different sides have been confused.”

But most people don’t have an abortion provider on call to answer questions about what an early pregnancy looks like. On top of that, many people will never experience an early miscarriage or see the products of an early abortion firsthand. As a result, the general population has limited access to information about fetal development. There are, of course, the photos wielded by anti-abortion protesters, many of which depict fetuses from well into the second trimester of pregnancy in the hopes of deterring potential abortion patients. But even ostensibly politically neutral sources come with a bit of a bias: information about early pregnancy is often designed with expectant parents in mind — people eager to bond with and humanize the cells that are rapidly dividing inside of them. As a result, there’s an incentive to create fetal development charts that don’t depict the proportional size of an embryo, exaggerating an early pregnancy’s resemblance to a fully grown baby. There’s a tendency to anthropomorphize the cluster of static in an early ultrasound or talk about a “fetal heartbeat” when nothing resembling a heart has actually been built.

A petri dish sits on a blue background. There is a small white dot in it, less than half an inch long.
The gestational sac of a five week pregnancy
MYA Network/Dr. Joan Fleischman, MD, MPA

For Renee Bracey Sherman, the 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 protohuman. The problem is when that perspective is foisted on people who don’t want to be pregnant, when one pregnant person’s excitement is used to warp the information given to abortion seekers — or, for that matter, the medical information provided to the public at large. “It’s not the existence of the images themselves, it is how it is used to coerce people,” says Bracey Sherman.

That’s probably why these photos caused so much of a stir. Most images of pregnancy are packaged in a way that highlights the humanity of a fetus: doctors decode blurry ultrasounds by pointing out the beginnings of heads, hands, and torsos; we’re trained to see future people in the earliest stages of fetal development. The images supplied by the MYA Network strip away all the magnification, and all the storytelling that goes with it, to reveal an unvarnished picture of a literal clump of cells. 

For those who feel invested in the specialness, the sanctity, of human pregnancies, it can feel disturbing to see the beginnings of human life presented in such a bare-bones fashion. But for others, these images bring tremendous relief. Amid the harassment and angry emails, both Noor and Valenti have gotten messages from many people who took great comfort from the photos. In some cases, “they carried huge shame and these images have been really helpful,” says Noor. “Being able to see this imagery has helped them to make sense of their own experiences.” 

Discussions of pregnancy and abortion will always be fraught. In addition to the fact that questions like “when does life begin?” are better left to philosophers than scientists, there’s 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 feel more human, more like a person, to someone who is eager to welcome a child into their home. 

“Being able to see this imagery has helped them to make sense of their own experiences.” 

Valenti, who has terminated both a wanted and an unwanted pregnancy, is deeply familiar with the difference in these experiences. “I had one early abortion when I was in my late 20s, before I met my husband, and that was not 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 to terminate 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, as she says, “I really did want to have another baby, and I really wanted my daughter to have a sibling.”

A cloud of white tissue sits in a petri dish set against a blue background.
The gestational sac of a nine week pregnancy.
MYA Network/Dr. Joan Fleischman, MD, MPA

That second abortion gives her some empathy for those who see a tiny human in that clump 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 a life I had in mind. And so that’s what made [the abortion] difficult for me.”

But even as those first few weeks of human development can feel dramatically different to different people — or even the same person in different circumstances — the one thing that shouldn’t be up for debate is what actually exists in the uterus in the early weeks of pregnancy, when the vast majority of abortions take place. 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 begin to have an honest conversation about pregnancy and abortion?

“Everybody thinks they know everything they need to know about abortion when, in fact, they actually know nothing,” says Bracey Sherman. “And that’s what’s really hard.”

Update 11/3 9:22 PM ET: A line has been adjusted to better clarify Noor’s recollection of what it was like verifying the photos.