Embryos, Zygotes And Babies

It’s been obvious for a good while now that the wide use of ultrasound technology has been an important tool for antichoicers in their campaigns to outlaw late-term abortions. People can see images that look a lot like “babies,” with identifiable body parts, which makes it easier to offset or disregard the maternal health conditions typically in play in determining whether abortions in such cases should be legal.

But the dirty little secret of abortion politics is that most terminations of pregnancies occur much earlier in the gestation process, and that antichoicers very much want to ban those that occur long before anything resembling a “baby” can be discerned.

That’s becoming more obvious thanks to the decision of abortion counselor Emily Letts to film her own early-term abortion–and the outrage that decision has engendered from those who assume anyone having an entirely legal abortion is or should be convulsed by shame.

And as Amanda Marcotte notes at RH Reality Check, antichoicers are frantic to keep those watching Letts’ video from believing the evidence of their own eyes:

What fascinates me the most about the reactions is the role fantasy plays in criticisms from the right, and what that generally says about the state of debate over abortion in this country—specifically, the fantasy that there’s a “baby” or even a “fetus” involved in an abortion like Letts’. It’s a fantasy that anti-choicers have angrily tried to assert in the loudest, most hyperbolic terms possible, no doubt hoping they’d drown out the evidence of how wrong they are.

To hear the lurid descriptions of what anti-choicers imagine abortion to be, it seems that they imagine someone killing an actual baby. Upending that narrative and reminding people, through incontrovertible visual proof, that during a first-trimester abortion the embryo is so small as to barely register as a potential baby, much less an actual baby, might be the most threatening part of the Letts video. Her stomach is flat. The abortion is quite obviously a quick gynecological procedure. If she had stayed pregnant, eventually there would be a baby. But it’s clear as could be, watching the video, that only fantasists have the ability to see “baby” where realists see nothing more than the beginning of a long process known as “pregnancy.” It’s no more a baby than a seed is a tree.

Now consider the debate over “abortifacient” birth control, at the center of the ongoing Hobby Lobby case challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. There we are talking about zygotes, typically about 60 micrometers in size. You’re not going to see antichoicers point to the visual characteristics of zygotes in talking about them as though they are just like you and me. So the “see for yourself” meme on fetal life is quite literally a selective optic.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.