On October 19, Guardian Senior Staff writer Poppy Noor published “What a pregnancy actually looks like before 10 weeks – in pictures.” The article reprints photographs from the MYA Network (“MY Abortion” network) of aborted pregnancy tissue and quotes an abortion provider of the same network, Dr. Joan Fleischman.
Given the title and the framing of the article, readers expect to see embryos at early gestational ages. In fact there are no visible embryos in any of the photographs.
This is curious because there are numerous depictions elsewhere (such as embryology textbook images, ultrasound recordings, and photos of miscarried remains) that show first trimester embryos recognizable to the naked eye.
But MYA Network’s photos are non-descript (and artificially monochromatic) blobs of tissue. The network explains they rinse off the blood and menstrual lining before photographing the tissue. They do not explain that abortion procedures can destroy embryos beyond recognition. Ms. Noor and Dr. Fleischman instead imply we can’t see the aborted embryos because they are simply too small.
Readers who have direct experience viewing embryos, such as medical professionals and parents in general, questioned whether MYA Network actually included embryos in the photographs. Some thought the network had removed the embryos and instead taken pictures of empty gestational sacs.
The suspicion was prevalent enough that later on the same day of publication, The Guardian updated one image description in the article to say “This image shows the gestational sac of a nine-week pregnancy. This is everything that would be removed during an abortion and includes the nascent embryo, which is not easily discernible to the naked eye.”
But an intact 9 week embryo would be discernible to the naked eye. Recall 9 weeks gestation/LMP is 7 weeks post-fertilization (Carnegie Stage 18). Below (left) is the MYA Network photograph of pregnancy tissue at that stage compared to (right) a high resolution image from University of New South Wales.
The above images are not at the same scale. An embryo at Carnegie Stage 18 would be between 13 to 17 mm, or 1.3 to 1.7 cm. For an intact embryo within decidua that retained any color, at scale you’d see something along this size:
The generous interpretation of the Guardian article is that Dr. Fleischman and Ms. Noor intended to educate the public about what pregnancy membranes and the embryo look like after abortion and after, for some reason, removing all color from the tissue and embryo. Perhaps Ms. Noor and Dr. Fleischman didn’t realize that the article would be interpreted as saying embryos are so underdeveloped and microscopic in the first 9 weeks that they can’t be seen by the naked eye.
That interpretation seems implausible, however, given quotes such as these:
Sometimes, patients want to see the tissue after an abortion. “They are stunned by what it actually looks like,” says Fleischman. “That’s when I realized how much the imagery on the internet and on placards – showing human-like qualities at this early stage of development – has really permeated the culture. People almost don’t believe this is what comes out.”
The imagery showing “human-like” qualities is imagery of embryos using technology (such as scanning electron microscopy) that allows us to see fine detail of very small subjects. The “human-like” qualities associated with embryos have permeated the culture because human embryos, in fact, have human-like qualities. But these qualities are omitted when the embryo is either destroyed beyond recognition or manipulated to be indistinguishable from the surrounding tissues.
Above is tissue removed at six weeks, when misleadingly named “fetal heartbeat” bills outlaw abortion.
It makes sense that the same people trying to quite literally erase embryos would deny the existence of embryonic heartbeats. Here is a scanning electron microscope image of the embryonic heart at Carnegie Stage 14 (about 6.5 weeks gestation):
Many images on the internet and in textbooks show development to be quite far along at this stage.
Again, this is referring to images of the intact embryo, not the remains of an aborted embryo removed of all color and contrast. Further, Ms. Noor seems to be suggesting that textbooks themselves are misleading, and that we should defer to the word of abortion providers over these educational resources. It’d be difficult for me to find a clearer example of how abortion rights rely on miseducation.
Above is pregnancy tissue at seven weeks. There is still no visible embryo. The gestational sac is not yet half an inch.
7 weeks gestation (5 weeks post-fertilization) is Carnegie Stage 15, at which point the intact embryo would be between about 0.5 – 1 cm and visible to the naked eye. But it’s true that the MYA Network’s photo contains no visible embryo. We can guess as to why not.
This image shows decidua (tissue to support the pregnancy) and the gestational sac (which would eventually become the amniotic sac, which supports the fetus). If we looked closer, under a microscope, would we see more human qualities?
“If you zoom in on anything, including sperm and an egg getting fertilized, it’s just an incredible thing to watch. But that’s very different from the everyday ways we see life. That perspective to me is the most relevant – but it is somehow absent from our consciousness,” says Fleischman.
So if we zoom in, can we see more human qualities? Dr. Fleischman declines to answer directly, but we already know the answer. In fact, The Guardian has previously printed the answer:
Above is a gestational sac removed at eight weeks of pregnancy. … [MYA Network wants] people to know what is actually being removed in early pregnancy.
In early pregnancy, what is actually being removed is the pregnancy tissue (membranes and gestational sac), as well as the embryo. If the MYA Network (or The Guardian, for that matter) wanted people to know what is actually being removed in early pregnancy, it seems like they would include some nonzero depiction of the embryo before abortion.
Abortion supporters have already tried to argue that embryos don’t have hearts (they do) or that they are parasites (they’re not). Poppy Noor’s article is another example of how desperately abortion rights rely on biological obfuscation and misinformation.