Womb with a View

Who or what is in the womb of a pregnant mother? Answers to that question have ranged historically from a fully-formed miniature human being—called a homunculus—to a blob of tissue. A 2002 book shows us how twenty-first-century medical imaging technology has given us a clear window to the womb.

Photographer Alexander Tsiaras and author Barry Werth combined data from ultra-sounds, CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other visualization techniques to produce a full-color coffee-table book, From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds.[1] Some of those photos were published in TIME magazine’s (Nov. 11, 2002) special report: “Inside the Womb: An Amazing Look at How We All Began.”[2] The photographs are truly amazing in their detail and their ability to isolate various body parts to show when a baby’s brain, heart, stomach, and other organs develop. Even a birth is reenacted photographically. The images are so intimate and detailed one feels a bit like a voyeur at times.

Like the now-famous 1965 photographs of a developing fetus by Lennart Nilsson published in LIFE magazine,[3] these images evoke awe and wonder. We are, indeed, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God’s meticulous handiwork is displayed in vivid detail in both sets of images.

Having said that, we ought not expect the pictures to accomplish more work than they can do. Even though these pictures are worth many thousands of words, they cannot do the impossible. They cannot “prove” that protectable human life begins in the womb. They show that from conception to birth human life progresses from stage to stage. They remind us that we too looked like that at one time in our early development. They portray human gestation in much of its biological splendor.

But, while these images show us in scrupulous detail how humans develop from conception to birth, they do not tell us whether that living being in the womb is a “who” or a “what.” Imaging technology can be a double-edged sword. As the authors of the TIME report point out, “Antiabortion activists may interpret [the photographs] as evidence that a fetus is a viable human being earlier than generally believed, while pro-choice advocates may argue that the new technology allows doctors to detect serious fetal defects at a stage when abortion is a reasonable option.”[4]

Nevertheless, mothers (and fathers, for that matter) contemplating abortion should be allowed to peer into the womb to see what God is doing there. They should see the tiny fingers, ears, and toes. They should see the face of their unborn child. They should count the cost of destroying God’s handiwork. Thousands have been persuaded not to have an abortion because they have been convinced that the “what” in their womb is a “who.”

Even without pictures, however, those with eyes to see know that the person in the womb is the special creation of our gracious God. The psalmist saw the truth spectacularly when he said:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb … My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16 NIV)

Interestingly, the words “woven together” (raqam) in the Hebrew might be translated “colorfully embroidered.” The tapestry that is a human being—body, soul, and spirit—is the work of the Master Artist. Those with eyes to see will see the one “whom” God sees when He looks into the womb.

[1] Alexander Tsiaras, From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[2] “Inside the Womb: An Amazing Look at How We All Began,” TIME Online, November 11, 2002, http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101021111/# (accessed September 1, 2007).

[3] Lennart Nilsson, “How Life Begins,” LIFE Online, April 30, 1965, http://www.life.com/Life/60th/classic/cv043065.html (accessed September 1, 2007).

[4] J. Madeleine Nash, “Inside the Womb: The Latest Science on How Healthy Babies Are Born,” TIME Online, November 11, 2002, http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101021111/# (accessed September 1, 2007).