Magazine | March 20, 2017, Issue

Lennart Nilsson’s Unborn Beauties

His photography revealed the humanity of the fetus

In September 2016, novelist Ian McEwan published a curious little book called “Nutshell” that re-envisioned Hamlet as a kind of 21st-century psychological thriller. Instead of a Danish prince, the protagonist is an unborn child in England — not quite an Englishman in the legal sense, but getting there. The book is full of beautiful reflections about human development at its earliest stage, narrated by the preternaturally lucid and intelligent baby. “Long ago, many weeks ago, my neural groove closed upon itself to become my spine and my many million young neurons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea,” he recounts. “My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults.”

McEwan is a very creative author, but passages like these bear the fingerprints of another artist: Lennart Nilsson, the Swedish photojournalist, who died on January 28 at age 94. Nilsson is credited with changing how we think about the unborn because he took the photos for a 1965 cover story in Life magazine titled “Drama of Life Before Birth.” The article included the first photograph of a living fetus in the womb, taken from one inch away with a wide-angle endoscopic camera. It is a striking, simple image, capturing the downturned head of the 15-week-old baby, surrounded by the chiaroscuro darkness of the womb. The baby’s eyes are shut. Branching networks of blood vessels are visible on eyelid and temple. A laurel of thin white hair marks an eyebrow. Faint, wavy lines on the forehead are woolly hairs called “lanugo” that cover the whole body and fall away before birth. Other images in the Life story depict the rest of the development process, from a three-and-a-half-week-old translucent curve of flesh that to the untrained eye merely suggests the human, to the ghostly visage of a 28-week-old fetus shrouded by the amnion.

This was not the first time that photographs of embryos had been published — Life had printed a spread of grayscale pictures, standard textbook photos taken outside the womb, as early as 1950 — but never before had they been depicted with the virtuosity of a Leonardo. Nilsson used backlighting to capture the jointed skeletal structure of a baby’s hand. He zoomed in close to capture the eye at eight weeks, lidless but with recognizable iris and pupil. He took a rear portrait at six weeks to capture the spine, at that early stage an unbroken white line of cartilage running from the crown to the nub of the vestigial tail.

Nilsson photographed many things over a long career. At age 15, he produced a series titled “Nature of the Farm” that was printed in a Swedish magazine. Soon after, he published a book on ants. One of his first notable spreads followed a polar-bear hunt in what is now Svalbard, the sparsely populated Norwegian island 450 miles north of the Scandinavian mainland. But his interest in the human body was evident early on. In 1945, at the age of 23, he published a series following a midwife in Lapland, Finland. Soon after, he began a twelve-year project that culminated in the Life cover story.

It was a period of invention as he collected and at times created the tools necessary to express his artistic vision. Then he waited for the white whale of a shot: the in utero portrait. Decades later, he told PBS’s Nova the story of the one that got away: “I remember it was a fetus about 15 weeks old — sucking the thumb — and when I tried to press the button of the camera, the flash strobe didn’t work. There was something wrong with it! It took many years before I got the next chance.”

The PBS interview, studded with exclamation points, reveals a man who had a specialist’s zeal for instruments and a generalist’s appreciation for humankind. In the ensuing years, he collaborated with scientists on electron-scanning microscopes, 4-D ultrasound, and camera lenses that were fractions of a millimeter in diameter. He used these instruments to brilliant effect in A Child Is Born (1965), a popular account of human development now in its fifth edition, and the documentary film The Miracle of Life (1983), a staple of high-school sex-education classes.

Nilsson’s death in late January was marked by obituaries in the major papers. These were unfailingly respectful of his life and work — his scientific credentials were, after all, impeccable. The Washington Post praised Nilsson as “a photographer of nearly singular genius” who, according to the headline, “revealed unborn life.” The New York Times’ headline was more evasive, describing a “photographer who unveiled the invisible.” Eventually the obituaries turned to the question on everyone’s mind. Nilsson was cagey on the subject of abortion. He often stated that he wanted “to educate people” and increase their “reverence for human life,” but he shied away from ontological pronouncements.

“If you are religious, you may believe that life starts 24 hours after fertilization,” he said in 1996. “Some scientists think it’s when the heart starts beating, 16 to 18 days after fertilization. It depends on yourself. I’m just a journalist telling you things.”

Regardless, Nilsson’s body of work “provided ammunition for the anti-abortion movement,” as the Times grumpily phrased it. His seminal photo series in Life was printed during a period of great cultural change on the subject of abortion. Just three years before, the American actress Sherri Finkbine, known to thousands of children as the host Miss Sherri on Romper Room, had divided the country by traveling to Nilsson’s native Sweden to abort a baby badly harmed by thalidomide. Her difficult case contributed to the shift in attitudes that led to Roe v. Wade in 1973. In a similar way, Nilsson’s work contributed to the pro-life movement that arose after that Supreme Court decision. His images often appear on signs at pro-life rallies as diplomatic alternatives to images of “war torn” fetuses, so to speak. The most effusive eulogies to Nilsson appeared on pro-life websites.

Pro-lifers’ enthusiasm for Nilsson’s work is simple enough to explain: His photographs humanized the unborn, showing them as members of the species who were following the same perilous path of development that all of us once traveled. In the darkness of the womb, enclosed in an iridescent amniotic bubble and tethered to the mother by a twisting, blood-red umbilical, the fetus looks like a little astronaut on a perilous spacewalk — so much so that one of the images from the Apollo-era Life article became known as “spaceman embryo.” The embryo’s vulnerability and humanness arouse the viewer’s sympathy and prick his conscience. That is the stuff of conversations and conversions.

Beyond their obvious significance in publicizing the fetal body, the artistic quality of Nilsson’s photographs elevates them from the realm of the clinical. They combine the naturalistic beauty of Discovery’s Planet Earth with the reverence and poetry of a Terrence Malick film. They seem to call out for philosophical discussion, and indeed Nilsson used ethical and symbolic language when considering the “miracle” of life. Nilsson’s most famous book, A Child Is Born, described the placenta as the “tree of life” — that caption was placed next to an image of a pregnant woman eating an apple. His book about the adult body is titled “Behold Man” (“Ecce Homo” in the Latin), a phrase from the Gospel of John that has been used as the title of dozens of paintings depicting the beaten and scourged Christ.

These rhetorical choices are not accidents, and they tell us something about Nilsson’s work. He was associating his images with a long tradition of Western art and thought that treated the human body with reverence. According to this view, the body is not merely an instrument but something that should be respected for its intrinsic worth. The pro-life movement draws on this tradition to justify its conviction that innocent human life should not be destroyed.

Abortion-rights advocates, who have long understood that fetal-imaging technology is not helpful to their cause, try to dismiss Nilsson’s photos by claiming that they present a romanticized image of the unborn. Seeing them, viewers will attribute a higher level of cognition and individuation to fetuses than they can possibly achieve until well after birth. The fetus is not a “spaceman,” after all, and he is certainly not a little Hamlet musing about being and nonbeing in the womb, as he is in the McEwan novel. The portraits also lead viewers to focus solely on the fetus while forgetting about the adult woman on whom the baby relies, critics argue.

Without fail, these naysayers point out that most of the pictures in Nilsson’s Life cover story show not living fetuses but dead or dying fetuses outside the womb who were made to appear as though they were healthy. Days before Nilsson’s death, Moira Weigel repeated this argument in The Atlantic, in an article that attacked fetal ultrasounds. “Nilsson admitted that he staged his photographs using aborted material; this was how he had been able to manipulate the position and lighting of the embryos to such dramatic effect,” she wrote. Weigel was paraphrasing a passage in a history of embryology published online by Cambridge University. “Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law,” the history states. “Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background, and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’s mouth.”

There is a mixture of truth and falsehood in these claims. It is true that many — all but one, in fact — of the subjects in Nilsson’s Life photos had been aborted and were dead or dying at the time he photographed them. “Doomed to a mortal end, they gained a kind of immortality through a photographer’s inspired vision,” wrote Time in 2013. But it is false that Nilsson deceived anyone about this fact. The opening paragraph of the Life story stated that “the embryos on the following pages had been surgically removed for a variety of medical reasons.” Text accompanying the famous “spaceman embryo” noted that “starlike spots around the amnion are merely bubbles in a fluid the photographer has used to support the amnion.” No one reading these descriptions could be misled about the provenance of the photographs. Also false is the blanket claim that all of the images in the Life story were of “abortus material,” to use the preferred euphemism for young cadavers. The photograph described in the first paragraph of the Life article captured a healthy 15-week-old fetus in the womb. Nilsson should not be denied that achievement.

When abortion-rights advocates point out that Nilsson “manipulated” dead fetuses for his project, they imply that the images are fraudulent. This argument would be more serious if the images were scientifically inaccurate, but of course they are not. Nilsson at times peeled away bits of the placental mass and used artificial lighting, but these choices revealed rather than obscured the reality of the embryo. He placed an 18-week-old fetus’s thumb in the baby’s mouth, but no one can deny that fetuses reflexively suck their thumbs in just that manner as early as the twelfth week of pregnancy. If Nilsson’s images of embryos do not meet the standard for clinical accuracy, it is hard to imagine that any images would. Perhaps that is the point for some abortion-rights supporters.

While critics question the clinical accuracy of the images, they object even more to the way the images engage viewers’ moral imagination. When readers saw the images, they affectionately dubbed the embryo a spaceman — emphasis on “man.” The abortion-rights cause is imperiled by this connection, because recognition of unborn humanity leads to reflections about what the unborn are owed — about human rights, in other words. When abortion-rights advocates object to the photos, the objection itself acknowledges the very question their movement would prefer to banish, the key question of the entire abortion debate: Are all human beings morally significant and worthy of protection?

Lennart Nilsson’s fetal portraits do not answer this question, but they do raise it and suggest an answer. To borrow again from McEwan, the images reveal the embryo as “a stately ship of genes, dignified by unhurried progress, freighted with [its] cargo of ancient information.” If left alone, the embryo will continue its journey to a natural conclusion. As Nilsson’s life demonstrates, these journeys can be full of wonder and discovery.

– Mr. Seitz is an assistant editor of the Washington Free Beacon.

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