What does an abortion look like?

Doctors share images of aborted fetuses. Hint: They don’t resemble little babies.

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Anti-abortion and abortion rights activists protest during the 50th annual March for Life rally on the National Mall on January 20, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

According to photos posted with a recent New York Times article, most aborted fetuses do not resemble the images of little babies often displayed by anti-abortion advocates but splotches of tissue an inch or two wide.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Never underestimate the role of imagery in Christianity’s march toward world domination. Christ crucified on the cross. The Virgin and Child. The Last Supper. The faith would circle the globe and centuries pass before anyone wondered how it was exactly that Jesus ended up a pale white northern European.

I don’t want to credit good graphics for the religion’s entire success; violence was also key, along with a doctrine that sounds good on paper. But compelling visuals, executed by craftsmen like Michelangelo, Raphael and El Greco, were in the top five.

So it was surprising Monday to turn to the New York Times editorial page and see images of what is removed during abortions that did not resemble Gerber babies. The gore that for years volunteers from Joe Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League displayed along Madison Street in color photographs five feet high.

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These were not the babies conjured up and branded into the public mind for years, but splotches of tissue an inch or two wide. Illustrations from a guest essay, “Early Abortion Looks Nothing Like You’ve Been Told,” by a trio of doctors, Erika Bliss, Joan Fleischman and Michele Gomez.

”Primary care clinicians like us who provide early abortions in their practices have long known that the pregnancy tissue we remove does not look like what most people expect,” they write. “It’s important to us to counter medical misinformation related to early pregnancy because about 80 percent of abortions in the United States occur at nine weeks or earlier. So much of the imagery that people see about abortion comes from abortion opponents who have spent decades spreading misleading fetal imagery to further their cause.”

“Important”? How about “kinda late”? “Important” would have been decades ago. Now, the damage is done, the zombie baby army that anti-choice fanatics conjured up and relentlessly flaunt as if real has already conquered the country. The right to an abortion, assumed in most of the civilized world, already has been yanked away from half the women in the United States. The debate not focused on whether women should be in charge of their own reproductive care or whether men should make those choices for them. But on saving babies.

A picture tells a thousand words, the saying goes. In 40 years of writing about this issue, I’d never seen photos like the Times ran Monday. It was a welcome surprise. But what is a cotton ball of truth going to do? It can’t absorb an ocean of misinformation. Extremists are, stop the presses, extreme, and to them, every abortion is a fully formed infant, touching middle fingers to thumbs, in a gesture of benediction singing psalms as it’s slaughtered while emerging from the womb.

Then again, religious fanatics always have the advantage. Once you are in the business of dismissing other people, their opinions and desires, the lives and arguments of those people are just so much smokescreen. The world can be evenly divided into those living their own lives and those trying to live somebody else’s, and the second category just seem so much more animated and energetic. It was the so-called pro-lifers who descended on Washington last week, while the pro-choice crowd sat at home and penned their op-ed pieces, well-illustrated though they be.

Imagine what could have been accomplished if actual issues and problems received half the attention given to using imaginary babies to force fundamentalist Christianity on all Americans through law. Sad to consider. The only thing left to add is that, despite the length of this battle, the half century since Roe v. Wade (and it certainly didn’t start there), this is only part of an even longer religious war. The same sort of people against abortion were also against contraception, and also foes of masturbation, heart transplants, and just about every medical advance that requires technology. Even today, women can enter a hospital and not realize they might be denied a hysterectomy or tubal ligation, not based on their own medical needs, but on the religious whims of the hospital owners.

The same people who think women shouldn’t get abortions also thought they shouldn’t serve as soldiers or police officers, or possess a credit card in their own name. Those battles were all lost, eventually. The zealots will lose this one, too, eventually.

Don’t hold your breath, though. Until then, the pictures help.

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