In 1953, a Swedish photographer and scientist embarked on a one of a kind mission. He aimed to capture the entire process of fetal development, starting from conception. Lennart Nilsson would be the first person in history to photograph the human fetus from inside the womb, chronicling its growth between the initial days of conception to several months into the maturation process. It would take 12 years to chronicle, but it would result in some of the most awe-striking images ever produced, and create a national debate regarding the moral ethics of abortion. Let’s begin on this birth process journey.
These photos would be published in LIFE magazine in 1965. That same year, Nilsson published a book titled A Child is Born.
No this isn’t a scene from a Stanley Kubrick film. This is sperm as it embarks on a journey into the female’s egg. Upon entering, it will begin the development process by creating an embryo…
Sperm entering egg
Contact has been made! The eagle has landed, so to speak. In this image, Nilsson has captured the exact moment when fertilization has occurred. This begins the process of embryogenesis. Once the sperm fertilizes the egg cell, the resulting cell is called the zygote. Thus, the nine month process of pregnancy is underway.
We are about 1 week into the process, and you can see that the blastocyst has already attached to the wall of the uterus. Through this implantation, the embryo is beginning to form. Additionally, the umbilical cord is created. The growth of the embryo involves centering around an axis which will eventually become the spine and spinal cord. Isn’t the birth process fascinating?
About a month into development and chemicals have been produced by the embryo that stop the mother’s menstrual cycle. It is still two weeks before the embryo will obtain a heart beat. The head makes up for at least half of the embryo’s length and much greater than half of its mass. Blood has started flowing…
At this stage, the embryo has grown a pair of arms and legs. Can you see them? We are still a ways from the birth process, but it is now capable of some basic motion, thanks to the processes of myogenesis and neurogenesis that have progressed to this point. By this time, the embryo is nearing the end of this phase and is anxious to become a fetus.
Notice the little eyes? Not only have eyes begun formation, but hair has started to form as well as essential organs. Facial features have also started to undergo development by now. It is right on the cusp of beginning its post embryonic state phase and the actual birth of a child. But it has many more weeks to go before it will see literal daylight, obviously…
After the 8th week, the embryonic stage has concluded and the fetal stage has begun. Now at 10 weeks, the eyes begin to close. Although they are currently only partially shut, they will soon be completely closed. Additionally, muscles are beginning to twitch uncontrollably. Technically, the heart, hands, feet, and other organs are present but they have yet to obtain any real operation.
At the beginning of the fetal stage, the fetus is usually about 1.2 inches in length, but it is predominantly head heavy. This alone makes up almost half of the fetus’ size. Breathing takes places but it is mostly in order to help develop the lungs, rather than to actually obtain oxygen. Looking at it so early on, it is surprising that the birth process will ever happen. But we are getting closer.
During this period, the woman begins feeling the fetus moving. For a first time pregnancy, this usually occurs at 21 weeks. For women who have given birth before, they will likely feel this at 20 weeks.
To this day, Nilsson’s exemplary coverage of the child development process remains a benchmark for scientists as well as for popular debates regarding abortion. Many studies point to the fact that this project effectively jump started discussions about when life begins, initiating arguments that are still being had to this day. Even effecting congressional legislation. The A Child is Born project is still the most in-depth and comprehensive journey through the maturation of an embryo and fetus.