Photos of what pregnancy tissue from early abortions at 5 to 9 weeks actually looks like have gone viral.
The images, which were originally shared by MYA Network — a network of physicians who provide early abortion services — and published in the Guardian, look like small clusters of white tissue and are vastly different from what most people typically see online. The photos have, unsurprisingly, elicited strong reactions.
Feminist author Jessica Valenti came under fire for sharing the images on her TikTok, with people calling her “a liar” and the photos “fake” because, as Valenti shared on TikTok, “it doesn’t align with what they’ve been taught an abortion and a pregnancy is.”
However, several others tweeted about the importance of seeing photos like these. “We need to change the images we use when we talk about abortion,” one user tweeted, while another wrote after seeing the photos: “It’s comforting and empowering.”
Dr. Joan Fleischman, a family medicine physician and abortion care provider for 25 years, who co-founded MYA Network and gathered the tissues, tells Yahoo Life that a lot of imagery of early pregnancy is “fully inaccurate.”
Women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider tells Yahoo Life that “weeks 5 to 9 is the early time period in a pregnancy. At 5 weeks, the embryo is a mass of cells with a developing neural tube (pre-spinal cord and brain). The forming fetus is no larger than a grain of rice.”
‘I had no idea it looked like this’
Fleischman tells Yahoo Life that she uses a manual aspiration device for abortion procedures, noting it’s a “very delicate device so the tissue does come out quite intact,” as pictured in the photos. She adds: “Everyone has had the same response, which is, ‘I had no idea it looked like this’ because that cultural imagery is unchallenged.”
Some social media users questioned why there wasn’t any blood in the images, while several claimed that the embryo must have been removed from the photos. However, Fleischman explains that the blood has been rinsed off and what remains is the gestational sac and the nascent (that is, just coming into existence) embryo, stating that there is no visible embryo at this stage.
“I’ve never seen an embryo at 9 weeks because of the size,” she says, adding that it would have to be magnified and noting that around 9 1/2 weeks you do start to see an embryo with the naked eye.
Because of the blowback from sharing these images, Fleischman says she commissioned a report from a pathologist to review them. In the report shared on Twitter by Guardian writer Poppy Noor, the pathologist, Dr. Emily Ryan, a clinical instructor in gynecological pathology at Stanford, wrote: “These photos are good examples of what we as pathologists see when looking at curettage specimens. In evaluating pregnancy tissue 9 weeks and under, the tissue is nebulous and identifiable embryos are usually not seen.”
Fleischman says the image of tissue from an abortion at 6 weeks in particular is “profound,” since that is when Texas and Oklahoma’s abortion bans start. The Texas abortion ban has been called “the heartbeat bill,” which experts have called medically inaccurate. According to MYA Network, “There is no ‘heart’ at 6 weeks of pregnancy, but there are cells that will come together to form the heart, and those cells already ‘beat.’ This is the motion that is seen on ultrasound and that people refer to as a ‘heartbeat,’ but again there is not yet a formed heart.”
She shares that some patients in need of abortion care come into her office “with so much heaviness,” but if they see what the tissue actually looks like after an abortion, they feel “100% percent relief.” Fleischman adds: “It’s a huge weight lifted.”
Why do people rarely see images like these?
“It’s a perfect demonstration of choosing images that advance your own perspective,” says Fleischman. She explains that when people are excited about their pregnancy, they want to see babylike images, noting that it’s “incredible when you’re excited and seeing that imagery and what’s going on on this day. They’re used medically to inspire people to take care of themselves.”
However, Fleischman says the anti-abortion-rights movement has “really used” similar babylike images “so successfully in every aspect of what they do. They’ve really dominated what’s on the internet.”
Wider agrees, saying: “For some people, picturing a babylike image makes the idea of terminating a pregnancy unacceptable — [but] at this early stage the embryo does not resemble a baby yet.”
The overturning of Roe v. Wade, followed by abortion bans being triggered in several states across the U.S., inspired Fleischman to share these images. “When the criminality of abortion started to happen I was like, ‘This imagery needs to be known publicly,’” she says.
Fleischman says that while some will doubt the authenticity of these images, she hopes that seeing them will cause people to “really grapple” with what they thought early abortions looked like. “How does this change how you feel? Nobody seems to be asking that question,” she says. “If you really let [these images] sink in, does that then impact your sense of denying this right to people?”
However, Wider acknowledges these images may not change the minds of people who are against abortion. “I’m not sure it changes the pro-life vs. pro-choice argument, because it really centers around the fundamental difference of when does life begin — many pro-life people feel it begins at conception,” she says.
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