During a Republican debate last month, Carly Fiorina claimed that one of the Planned Parenthood sting videos contained footage of “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” Fiorina has refused to back down from her statement, even in the face of evidence that solidly refutes her assertion.
Fiorina is hardly the only anti-choice politician, activist or supporter who ignores evidence and facts in their haste to demonize Planned Parenthood and all abortion providers. In fact, she’s part of a long tradition of anti-abortion advocates who have no problem with lying about what abortion is and what it looks like to advance their agenda.
Many of the images that anti-choice activists use when protesting clinics and holding events purport to show fetuses at certain stages of development. But the preferred anti-choice method of dating a pregnancy conflicts with what medical professionals use. Antis use the approximate date of conception, also known as gestational age; physicians, on the other hand, go by the date of the woman’s last menstrual period (LMP). One reason that physicians use LMP is because that’s the last time a woman knows for sure she wasn’t pregnant; the actual conception can occur anytime between that date and when she doesn’t get her next period.
Dating a pregnancy from the approximate date of conception fits nicely with the anti-choice interest in making fetal images even more shocking than they already are. By doing so, they get to claim that certain developmental landmarks happen way before they actually do and that, for example, an image of a fetus that is at twelve weeks of development is actually that of one at nine weeks.
Where these images actually come from is an equally murky issue. The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, which maintains an extensive library of these images, claims that they’re unable to specify how they acquired the images due to the acquisition agreements used. But a 2010 Slate article stated that the organization pays doctors and clinics to allow a photographer into an operation room and speculates that, since such an arrangement is “unheard of” in the U.S., the images were obtained abroad.
Since activists often use these pictures to try to convince people that certain abortion procedures should be banned in the U.S., whether or not they’re depicting abortions performed in this country is important. When he gave a speech on the House floor recently, Trent Franks displayed an image of a fetus terminated with a saline abortion—but saline procedures haven’t been commonly used in this country for decades, thanks to advances in abortion care.
Even pictures of fetuses aborted in the U.S. carry serious issues in terms of their provenance and records. One of the anti-choice movement’s most famous images is of a fetus that was allegedly found in a jar along with several other fetuses, and that jar was apparently stored along with dozens of others in freezers near a Texas abortion clinic. Or so goes the anti-choice account, which conveniently doesn’t name the clinic or explain just how a group of anti-choice activists happened to be the only people to find the freezers, or why they didn’t call the police after their discovery.
At least those activists didn’t decide to bring the fetuses with them to protests. The same can’t be said for one anti-choice activist who showed up at a 1992 protest carrying a fetus. Think about that for second: A man who claimed to respect life so much that he saw nothing wrong with yelling at strangers about their healthcare decisions used a human fetus as a prop. I don’t know – to me, that seems like pretty much the opposite of respecting life and honoring babies. The reverend was arrested, the fetus was confiscated, and a coroner later concluded that the fetus was stillborn, not aborted.
Perhaps taking a page from this man’s questionable playbook, the creator of the Planned Parenthood sting videos—the ones that were the subject of Carly Fiorina’s misinformed furor—tried to pass off at least one image of a stillborn fetus as having been aborted. Not only did he use the image without the permission of the family that suffered this loss, but he appeared unable to grasp why it’s dishonest to slip an image of a stillborn fetus into an anti-abortion video.
The anti-choice movement uses fetal images to further a very straightforward, and incomplete, narrative: This is an aborted fetus, and people should believe us because we say so. That’s the narrative the Center for Medical Progress has been using with its heavily and deceptively edited videos. And that’s what Carly Fiorina is doing with her campaign against Planned Parenthood for having the temerity to—what? Give women who want to donate fetal tissue to medical research a way to do that? Provide health care? Simply exist?
But repeating a lie over and over again doesn’t make it the truth. The shady methods employed by the anti-choice movement in the images and videos they use to attack reproductive rights are just further evidence of how little interest the movement has in honest dialogue, and how little faith it has in its ability to effect change by just being honest.
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives with her family in Washington, D.C.