The Nilsson photo—“The Fetus, 18 weeks”—is “one of the 20th century’s great photographs”

By Dave Andrusko

It’s been almost three years since the passing of photojournalist extraordinaire Lennart Nilsson. To get ahead of myself, one of his iconic works (no lesser term will suffice)—“Fetus, 18 weeks”– is getting a well-deserved second look as “one of the 20th century’s great photographs,” to quote Charlotte Jansen, writing for the British (and very pro-abortion) newspaper, The Guardian.

Each generation of pro-lifers is shaped and molded by what we might call common core knowledge. For those of us who were recruited in the 1970s and early 1980s that stock of must-read/ must-view information included The Willkes’ “Handbook on Abortion,” Jean Garton’s “Who Broke the Baby?” and what were always called “the Nilsson photos.”

The latter refers to a series of photos taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson which first appeared in Life Magazine and then in the book, “A Child is Born.”

Here’s how one publication described the impact of Nilsson’s work:

His 1965 book, “A Child is Born,” was one of the most successful photography albums ever, selling in the millions and becoming an iconic work for the anti-abortion movement.

“Iconic” is one of the two or three most misused/overused words in the English language. In this case, it is absolutely accurate.

“When the supporters of abortion were arguing that the baby was nothing more than a ‘blob of tissue,’” Dr. Randall K. O’Bannon, NRLC director of education & research once told me, “these photographs were exposing that lie on the magazine racks of checkout counters all across America.”

TIME magazine called “Fetus, at 18 weeks” one of the 100 “Most Influential Images of All Time.” It adorned the cover of April 3, 1965, issue of LIFE magazine, “along with other, equally jaw-dropping pictures across multiple pages inside the magazine,” according to TIME’s Ben Gosgrove. The collection was called, “The Drama of Life Before Birth”

If we are to believe Charlotte Jansen’s accounts, and others, being part of the abortion debate was not Nilsson’s objective. As least as far as I can determine, he never took a public position on abortion. According to Jansen, Nilsson did not know of the power of his images –the 1965 cover of Life Magazine and the 1965 photography albums, “A child is Born” –for many years. Afterwards, he would not allow his images to be used.

Jansen writes

In April 1965, Life magazine put a photograph called Foetus 18 Weeks on its cover and caused a sensation. The issue was a spectacular success, the fastest-selling copy in Life’s entire history. In full colour and crystal clear detail, the picture showed a foetus in its amniotic sac, with its umbilical cord winding off to the placenta. The unborn child, floating in a seemingly cosmic backdrop, appears vulnerable yet serene. Its eyes are closed and its tiny, perfectly formed fists are clutched to its chest.

Capturing that most universal of subjects, our own creation, Foetus 18 Weeks was one of the 20th century’s great photographs, as emotive as it was technically impressive, even by today’s standards.

The rest of Jansen’s piece is lamenting how pro-lifers “highjacked” the photos but, more interestingly, how Nilsson produced these masterpieces.

Jansen tells us that tracking the unborn child’s development using ultrasound in hospitals was not common until the 1970s.

So instead, Nilsson enlisted the help of two German endoscope experts, Karl Storz and Jungners Optiska, who created optical tubes with macro lenses and wide-angled optics that could be inserted into a woman’s body.

Nilsson was only able to photograph one living foetus, though, using an endoscopic camera that travelled into a womb. This picture was included in Life and is distinct from the others – being taken inside the uterus means it can’t capture the foetus in its entirety. All the other images were either miscarried or terminated pregnancies.

The photographer worked closely with Professor Axel Ingelman-Sundberg, then head of the women’s clinic at the Sabbatsberg hospital in Stockholm, taking hundreds of shots with his Hasselblad camera from 1958 to 1965.

Stene is, for lack of a better word, agnostic about the place of Nilsson’s photos in the larger cultural setting. Jensen concludes her story

Stene accepts that the images have divided opinion over the polemical question of when life begins, but says: “Everyone interprets images differently, depending on their social, cultural and religious background. In the digital era, I believe it is more important than ever to go back and take a look inside ourselves. What better way of doing that than with these photos?”

Last year, Stene points out, the first ever photograph of a black hole was published. “For me,” he says, “looking at that picture and looking at one of the foetus photos are the same thing. After all, what do we really know about the origin of mankind and the universe?”

What we know, initially by Nilsson’s phenomenal photos and subsequently by incredibly detailed 4 color, 4 D ultrasounds, is that we now have a “live video effect, like a movie,” according to WebMd.com, “you can watch your baby smile or yawn.”