Taking on a Life of Its Own: The Birth of the “Public Fetus” in the Age of the Sexual Revolution

Lennart Nilsson’s photo essay “The Drama of Life Before Birth”[1] has been credited with the construction of “the public fetus,” [2] the mental image of the unborn widely adopted by our collective consciousness. The essay was published in Life magazine on April 30th, 1965, an issue with a famous fetal cover that sold 8 million copies in four days—the entire print run.[3] The photos in this essay have been appropriated for anti-abortion propaganda, and have also fueled what one author called a “cottage industry” of feminist critique against fetal imagery.[4]  Most scholarship on Nilsson’s photo essay and similar work has focused on deconstructing the meaning attributed to these photos, highlighting the threat they pose to the pro-choice cause, instead of understanding the public’s reaction to them in their historical moment.[5] Although these photos have influenced the contemporary abortion debate, it would be anachronistic to analyze public reaction to them primarily through the lens of controversy. As one Time magazine article put it, the central question raised by the Life magazine issue in its moment was not abortion but “How did they do that?”[6] A more comprehensive explanation for the strong public reaction to Nilsson’s fetal images is the gradual erasure of the delineation between the public and the private that emerged during the 1960s. Before that time, pregnancy, especially in its more intimate aspects, was considered a purely private matter. Discussions around reproductive issues were reserved for specific audiences, not for mass consumption. With the advent of the Sexual Revolution, private matters were suddenly the subject of widespread media scrutiny. In that vein, Lennart Nilsson also wanted to reveal what was private, and photograph the hidden.[7]  He photographed the fetus with a degree of detail and aesthetic refinement that gave the audience the impression that they were up close with the real thing. This sense of realism inspired feelings of wonder and amazement that explain the strong reaction to his photo essay.

            In the first half of the twentieth century, attitudes towards the public display of pregnancy were rather guarded. It was considered to be reserved for certain audiences, namely parents and doctors—not the broader community. When images of pregnancy did surface in the mass media, they were marked by a certain delicacy and abstraction. There were few references to it as a physical experience. The paucity of the visual record surrounding pregnancy testifies to American society’s reserve. Sandra Matthews, professor of photography, published a book on pictures of pregnant women in the 19th and 20th century, focusing on the post World War II era. She writes of her astonishment at the lack of pregnant women in public visual culture; the images tended to be reserved to medical textbooks and maternity clothing catalogues.[8] The vintage clothing site VintageDancer.Com corroborates this impression. Of all their catalogues dealing in vintage clothing—dating from 1890 to 1960—only a few pages were devoted to maternity clothing. This is somewhat peculiar considering the relatively high birth rate of the age, especially during the Baby Boom.  The pictures themselves are somewhat telling. Of all the photos showing vintage clothing, none of the women are showing any physical manifestation of pregnancy.[9]

But perhaps the most telling evidence of the evolution of attitudes about pregnancy is the Editor’s Note from Life magazine issue which gave feedback on Lennart Nilsson’s photos (May 21, 1965).[10] In order to illustrate the evolution in attitudes towards reproductive matters, Managing Editor George P. Hunt recounted an anecdote about  a photo essay called “The Birth of a Baby” published in Life magazine in 1938.[11] At that time, the editors at Life were keenly aware of the controversial nature of the black-and-white photos of a baby being born even though the mother’s nudity was completely covered. Parents and sellers were warned in advance about the upcoming issue as a precautionary measure in order to buffer the controversy. Nevertheless, the magazine was banned in Pennsylvania and 33 cities, including Boston. Publisher Roy Larsen got himself arrested to challenge the ban and was eventually acquitted. Seventy-six percent of the American public may have opposed the ban according to a Gallup poll, but the fact that Larsen got himself arrested shows the strength of the taboo against showing reproductive matters.

            Concurrent with this cultural conservatism was an evolution in sexual mores that erupted into the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. Two events that announced its inception were the FDA approval of the Birth Control Pill (along with the media storm that it raised) and the publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl in 1962—which sold two million copies in three weeks.[12]  Its widespread distribution and resulting media attention signalled the first time that female extra-marital sexuality was acknowledged and accepted.  Private matters were no longer completely private. The openness to representations of female sexual activity in the mass media lent itself to openness to representations of the biological consequence of that activity, namely the unborn.
            To be sure, the residue of the former taboo was still evident in the “Letters to the Editor” section of Life magazine.  As George P. Hunt observed in his “Note”, a minority of the letters about Nilsson’s photos thought they were “repulsive” and “disgusting.” One letter writer exclaimed:

You have done a thorough job this time of bringing American womanhood down to the lowest level of animals in the laboratories. Your cover is inexcusable, and every American woman, if she has a bit of modesty or sense of personal privacy, should sue you.[13]

Another mother wrote:

I’m up in arms.  I have four young teen-age sons and it is no easy matter keeping their young minds healthy today. It’s not that I don’t believe in babies, but I don’t believe in giving birth to one in public.

But most of the correspondence was positive.  As George Hunt said, compared to the 1938 photo essay, reaction to Nilsson’s work was “more broad-minded and philosophical, more interested in being informed, less bothered by taboos.”[14] The words “awe” and “miracle” reappeared again and again. One letter epitomized the evolution of attitudes that had taken place:

It prompted the most stimulating and provocative questioning I have ever encountered in my three youngest children, aged 10, 11 and 14—not a soon-to-be-forgotten sharing of delicate beauty and truth. What a marked contrast to the Victorian whispers and silences that met my questions as a child! [15] [Emphasis mine.]

Nilsson’s pictures were a novelty, not only because they marked an erasure of the delineation between private and public, but always because of the aesthetic quality of these representations. To understand Nilsson’s achievement, one must understand the historical context in relation to fetal imagery. In our own moment, perceptions of the unborn have been so heavily influenced by his photography and sophisticated imaging systems such as 4D ultrasound, MRI’s, and embryoscopy that we have forgotten how rare it was to come across an image of a fetus in the early twentieth century.  A hundred years ago, most Americans would not have been able to picture a human embryo in their minds.[16] The Post World War II era saw increased interest in the pre-natal in the wake of the Baby Boom, and as a result, there was an increasing coverage of the unborn.[17] Some notable examples of this coverage are a photo essay in Parents Magazine about the prenatal exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1947;  black-and-white photos of embryos that Nilsson had published in Life magazine in 1950 and 1953; and a best-selling book from Geraldine Lux Flanagan published in 1962  called The First Nine Months of Life. Flanagan’s book was an accomplishment, because it represented an advance in the depictions of the unborn. The pictures in the Parents magazine would have been of fetus specimens in a jar,[18] which was the typical presentation of the unborn at the time. Lennart Nilsson’s earlier embryos, while not in a jar, were somewhat freakish. Geraldine Lux Flanagan, a childbirth advocate, deliberately chose to use images from Davenport Hooker’s neurological experiments on recently miscarried and aborted fetuses in their last moments of their lives. Hooker was a friend of hers, and very supportive of her attempt to educate the public about the facts of life. She chose those pictures, as opposed to the traditional fetus-in-a-jar image because she thought they looked “monstrous”.[19] Even though the pictures of the unborn were in black and white, they seemed to be in a more natural state than the typical specimens-in-a-jar that had predominated recent fetal photography.

            Like Geraldine Lux Flanagan, Lennart Nilsson wanted to show the world the hidden fetus. But whereas Flanagan was a public health educator, Nilsson was a medical photographer, someone who had a sharper sense of aesthetics. He did not simply want to photograph the unborn; he wanted people to know what they were like in vivo.  To this end he went to great lengths to obtain stunning images. He devised a camera to put on an endoscope to obtain the first ever picture of a living fetus (aged 15 weeks), whose picture graces the top of the photo essay.  The other unborn specimens were obtained through an arrangement with surgeons at five Stockholm hospitals.  Nilsson would photograph fetuses so soon after their surgical removal, they may have very well been alive. For the most part, they retained their amniotic sac, umbilical cord, and placenta— products of conception that Nilsson beautifully incorporated into the image, instead of dismissing them as irrelevant excess tissue. The fetuses and embryos were backlit to emphasize the exquisite details that photos in the past had never picked up: the fleshy tones, the translucent skin, the body’s texture, the veins, the hair, the fingernails, the lips, etc.

Nilsson’s innovation was not just in photographing fetuses in vivo, but in showing them with a level of detail all the while creating a sense of beauty. This beauty reinforced a sense of intimacy with the unborn that, in turn conferred a sense of scientific authority on the picture. The audience wasn’t just looking at a picture: it was like they were looking at the real thing.  One interview with Lennart Nilsson summarizes this phenomenon. When asked by David Van Diema, interviewing for Life magazine in 1990, asked Lennart Nilsson when he thought life began. He replied:

“Look at the pictures. I am not the man who shall decide when human life started. I am a reporter. I am a photographer.”[20]

In other words, he is not a theoretician on bioethics, he only reports the facts.  The photos themselves are proof of whatever theory one wished to espouse.  As author Kelly Oliver succinctly put it, when it came to Nilsson’s photos “seeing is believing.”[21]

            The feeling of proximity towards the true-to-life images of Lennart Nilsson’s photo essay “The Drama of Life Before Birth” was what led to the development of the notion of “the public fetus” and explains the strong public reaction to his photos. Before the 1960s, Americans harbored a certain reserve surrounding the physical manifestations of reproduction. With the advent of the Sexual Revolution, the sharp distinctions between private and public were greatly diminished, so that open discussion and display of reproductive matters in a general audience became acceptable. In this atmosphere, the publication of fetal imagery became possible. But Lennart Nilsson not only uncovered the unborn; he made them so beautiful and true to life that readers thought they were looking at the real thing, producing a feeling of wonder and astonishment. In the coming years, Lennart Nilsson’s photos would have a significant impact on the looking culture wars that were sparked by the change in sexual mores. The Sexual Revolution would eventually lead to liberalized abortion laws; paradoxically, it was also responsible for the very cultural artefact used to oppose them.

Adams, Alice ElaineReproducing the Womb: Images of Childbirth in Science.  Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Cosgrove, Ben. “The Drama of Life Before Birth': Lennart Nilsson's Landmark 1965 Photo Essay.” Time. March 4, 2013. http://time.com/3876085/drama-of-life-before-birth-landmark-work-five-decades-later/#1
Dubow, Sara. Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hunt, George P. “Editor’s Note,” Life, May 21, 1965, 3.
Lupton, Deborah. The Social Worlds of the Unborn. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.
Nilsson, Lennart. LennartNilsson.com. http://www.lennartnilsson.com/en/lennart-nilsson-2/ . Retrieved October 8, 2017.
“Letters to the Editor”, Life, May 21, 1965, 27.
Matthews, Sandra. Pregnant Pictures. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Morgan, Lynn.  Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Oliver, Kelly. Family Values: Subjects Between Nature and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Petechesky, Rosalind. "Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction." Feminist Studies. 13 (2): 263–292.
Roth, Rachel. Making Women Pay: The Hidden Costs of Fetal Rights. Ithaca New York: Cornell University Press, 2012.
Sessions, Debbie and Oscar. “Vintage Maternity Clothes History.” https://vintagedancer.com/1920s/vintage-maternity-clothes-history/ . Accessed October 8, 2017.
Weigel, MoiraLabor of Love: The Invention of Dating. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Williams, Daniel K.. Defenders of the Unborn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Available at http://www.tinyurl.com/nilsson1965 page 54.
[2] R. Petchesky,"Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction," Feminist Studies, 13 (2): 281.
[3] Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 69.
[4] R. Roth, Making Women Pay: The Hidden Costs of Fetal Rights (Ithaca New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 33.
[5] For a list of writers consult: Deborah Lupton, The Social Worlds of the Unborn, 46-50.
[6] Ben Cosgrove, “Drama of Life Before Birth': Lennart Nilsson's Landmark 1965 Photo Essay,”Time, March 4, 2013. http://time.com/3876085/drama-of-life-before-birth-landmark-work-five-decades-later/#1
[7] Lennart Nilsson’s website. http://www.lennartnilsson.com/en/lennart-nilsson-2/ - Retrieved October 8, 2017.
[8] Sandra Matthews, Pregnant Pictures (New York: Routledge, 2000), 1-2.
[9] Debbie and Oscar Sessions, “Vintage Maternity Clothes History “, accessed October 8, 2017. https://vintagedancer.com/1920s/vintage-maternity-clothes-history/ .
[10] George P. Hunt, “Editor’s Note,” Life, May 21, 1965, 3.
[11] Some of the offending photos can be viewed at https://iconicphotos.org/2010/12/01/the-birth-of-a-baby/ .
[12] Moira Weigel, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 137.
[13] “Letters to the Editor”, Life, May 21, 1965, 27.
[14] Hunt, 3.
[15] “Letters to the Editor”, 27.
[16] Lynn Morgan, Icons of LifeA Cultural History of Human Embryos (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 4.
[17] Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 51.
[18] The exhibit actually used wax models of specimens. Dubow, 44.
[19] Morgan, 202.
[20] Alice Elaine Adams, Reproducing the Womb: Images of Childbirth in Science 1994, 142 quoted in Kelly Oliver, Family Values: Subjects Between Nature and Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1997), 26.
[21] Kelly Over, 26.