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Boston Globe Magazine
Photo by Jan Sturmann

Lynn Morgan


The Discovery At Mount Holyoke College Of A Collection Of Fetuses In Jars Underscores How Perceptions Change Over Time. The Specimens Were Once Used For Routine Study, But Today, After Decades Of Debate Over Abortion, They Elicit A Very Different Reaction

August 10, 2003

Five years ago, anthropologist Lynn Morgan made a chance discovery of a collection of about 100 embryos and fetuses at various stages of development. They were stuffed into a haphazard array of jars, including one that previously had contained 8 pounds of grapefruit sections. That one alone held more than half a dozen specimens.

The jars were tucked away on steel shelves in the basement of the Mount Holyoke College biology lab. Some were sealed with little more than masking tape. The formalin, a liquid preservative, had partially evaporated, and the specimens were falling apart. One of the larger jars was especially striking. It contained a full-term baby that had probably been borne (and possibly born) before the start of the nuclear age. Its eyes were closed, and curly wisps of red hair trailed from the scalp. The gender was hidden by its position in the jar. The skin was withered, with deep folds around the neck.

Morgan, whose research to that point focused on ideas in non-Western cultures about when a human life begins, was especially taken by the heedlessness with which these objects of inquiry had once been treated. She later learned that it wasn't unusual for human embryos to be stored in large vats and that high schools, colleges, and hospitals all over the Western world had collections.

"Only someone who considered them dead, inert, impersonal, devoid of humanity, could have thrown them all together into one jar," Morgan says ofthe Mount Holyoke fetuses. "They were regarded as undifferentiated biological specimens; they certainly didn't represent people or even potential people."

Morgan was also interested in her own gut reaction to these fetuses when she first saw them. "I was at once amazed and repulsed," she says. "I was fascinated, but I felt that it was voyeuristic. I was drawn to them but embarrassed about being drawn to them. Today it would be unthinkable to put together this kind of collection - people would consider it disrespectful, inappropriate, and gross." She searched out some of her colleagues at Mount Holyoke who once used these specimens.

Retired biology professor Curtis Smith remembered a rivalry between zoology and physiology alumnae as to who could keep their former professors better supplied with fetuses and embryos.

B. J. White, a diminutive octogenarian whose white hair makes her slightly smudged lipstick seem all the redder, was a zoology major at Mount Holyoke in the late 1930s. She remembered studying embryos and fetuses. "We did chicks and then we did pigs and then we did humans," she said.

Among her papers, White came across an index card with some handwritten notes. One was headed: "Seventh to Ninth Month." Under that she had written: "A progressive accumulation of subcutaneous fat and a general thickening of the skin gradually transforms the wizened fetus from a raw-red, dried-up miniature of a human child into a reasonable facsimile of the chubby babe-in-arms so fondly depicted by Rubens and Botticelli."

Morgan realized these fetuses had a story to tell about how our culture tries to answer questions about the beginnings of personhood. The story she found is rooted as much in the nexus of art and science as it is in politics, law, or religion.
The beginning of the intense politicization of the developing fetus coincided with the publication of Swedish medical photographer Lennart Nilsson's famous book A Child is Born in 1965. The project had been more than a dozen years in the making, and the subjects Nilsson photographed came from the same kinds of collections Morgan had discovered. The book appeared in conjunction with a 16-page spread plus the cover of Life magazine, which sold out 8 million copies of the edition in four days. The photos, which the unsuspecting eye might not have realized were of dead fetuses, showed different stages of gestational development. They were simultaneously published in Stern, Paris Match, London's Sunday Times, and other magazines.

Today it is common for expectant parents to post ultrasound pictures of their babies-to-be on websites. Images of fetuses have been used to advertise products ranging from AT&T long distance telephone service to automobiles. A 1990 television commercial showed a picture of a fetus with the question "Is something inside telling you to buy a Volvo?"

The fact that photojournalists and marketers took dead embryos and fetuses out of the laboratory and put them on public display doesn't concern most abortion foes. They also don't take issue with using dead fetuses for scientific inquiry.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, isn't bothered by the publicity or by the idea of students in a bygone era sectioning embryos and fetuses to observe their development, as long as those specimens died of natural causes. Johnson freely admits that the antiabortion movement has put more fetuses - alive, dead, and in some cases mutilated - on public display than anyone else.

Asked if abortion foes display dead fetuses on websites, billboards, fliers, and in magazines for the shock value, Johnson replies, "I would say we do it to educate." It is a similar impulse, he argues, that prompted people like Nilsson to photograph dead fetuses. But the "educational" aim of the antiabortion movement is not so much to study the developmental milestones of the fetus, but to inform the public that fetuses show many of the physical characteristics of the persons they are destined to become.

In the scientific community, the Carnegie Institution of Washington amassed the largest and best-known embryo and fetus collection. From 1913 into the mid-1940s, this collection grew to include nearly 10,000 specimens at various stages of development. This was America's quintessential collection in what Morgan refers to as "the curio cabinet" phase of biology.

In the late 1930s, the boundaries of "look and see" research involved trying to get young er and younger specimens. Loretta McLaughlin, in her book The Pill, John Rock, and the Church: The Biography of a Revolution, tells the story of the contribution two Boston physicians made to this work.

Rock, a gynecologist and a devout Catholic, together with Arthur Hertig, a medical pathologist, working at what was to become part of Brigham and Women's Hospital, recruited women who were to undergo elective hysterectomies. They asked them to chart their unprotected sexual activity in the weeks and days leading up to the operation. Afterward, Hertig searched the uterus for a fertilized egg. When he found one he delivered it to the Carnegie collection in Baltimore. Between 1938 and 1952, the team reaped 34 embryos from the uteri of 211 women. The youngest embryo was 36 hours old.

This research posed an obvious ethical, if not legal, dilemma, because it could be argued that Rock and Hertig were performing abortions, which were prohibited at the time. Their reasoning for why their research fell within the letter of the law was that there were no tests at the time that could have detected a pregnancy at such an early stage. The fact that they encouraged these women to conceive in the days leading up to the operation was harder to rationalize. McLaughlin reports that Rock and Hertig thought "long and hard" about the ethical implications of their work. In the end it came down to, in their own words, "a necessary scientific endeavor using material that would have gone to waste but would have not been put to the use for which the Lord intended it." They considered the fertilized eggs "undifferentiated bits of protoplasm, tiny gelatinous packets of human protein, destined to end up, undetected, in a surgical waste bin."

The foreshadowing of current debates over embryonic stem cell research in the way Rock and Hertig resolved their moral dilemma is notable. The frontiers of knowledge have advanced light-years since they were mining the uteri of willing participants in order to see what the earliest stages of human life look like. Today's scientists are exploring new moral territory by asking how these nascent life forms can be put to use. Stem cells from embryos, some believe, can be valuable for developing new treatments, most immediately for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The big difference between then and now, notes Arthur Caplan, head of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is the growth of the antiabortion movement. "It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Roe v. Wade decision" on current bioethical debates, Caplan says. "People today see everything through the prism of the abortion debate, so to stop a practice which they think is morally wrong, they see a baby in every cell."

Caplan is a leading critic of the compromise President Bush struck in his August 9, 2001, national address, in which he tried to finesse thorny questions around how the biography of an organism influences the moral equations surrounding its use for science. The president's solution was to permit federal spending on research involving 60 stem cell lines already in existence. "I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made," Bush said.

Fertility clinics around the country have tens of thousands of fertilized eggs in cold storage with more being added every day. Most are left over from both successful and unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization. Staunch abortion foes advocate putting these frozen embryos up for "adoption," rather than donating them for research. But the math poses a daunting challenge to these proposals. It is true that any one of these embryos could develop into a human being, but the fact is the vast majority won't.

"The problem with the president's policy is that it is hopelessly arbitrary and illogical," says Caplan. "Why is it ethical to use stem cells made from human embryos before August 9, 2001, but not after?"

In one of those strange twists of how history evolves, the work of those scientists who collected embryos and fetuses to study, as well as artists like Nilsson with a penchant for popularizing images coming out of the lab, played a significant role in bolstering the antiabortion constituency.

As an anthropologist, Morgan studies social and cultural norms to see how different groups of people arrive at their own "truths" about fundamental questions, such as when "personhood" begins or at what point different societies welcome a new being into the human family. For example, the Cherokee named and accorded full burial rites to miscarried fetuses, while some tribes in south Asia wouldn't name or even show babies to the larger community for more than a month after they were born.

Conception has only recently been promoted as a marker for the beginning of "personhood." Those who say that a member of the human family comes into exist ence at the moment the sperm collides with the egg are telling a story grounded in biology rather than one that has anything to do with social ties, says Morgan.

Through the ages, various learned institutions and personages have claimed any number of significant moments as the beginning of personhood. Until well into the 19th century, the Catholic Church, based on theories first expressed by Thomas Aquinas, held that "ensoulment" occurred 40 days after conception for males and 90 days after conception for females, distinctions that were of little practical consequence because the gender of embryos younger than 90 days could not be detected.

More recently, people have suggested that just as a person can be pronounced dead when the heart stops beating, life can said to start when the heart begins beating. The US Supreme Court has looked to the concept of "viability," or when a fetus can theoretically live outside the womb in de pend ent of its mother, to guide its decisions.

To Morgan, reasoning grounded in biology, which might tell a true story about how a fetus develops, can never hope to tell the true story of how a person comes into being. The fetus and images of fetuses are raw material onto which we project our hopes, fears, and political views.

Why, asks Morgan, should the story of the sperm and the egg be any more legitimate for determining how a fetus becomes a person than the stories of the Wari Indians in the Amazon who believe that a fetus grows stronger as a man and a woman engage in repeated sexual intercourse throughout pregnancy, on the theory that the man's semen is instrumental in building the flesh and strength of the growing organism? That story is at least grounded in social bonds the new child will depend on someday to lead a secure and happy life.

The visible features of the embryo, and the fact that it bears physical similarities to us (and to chickens, pigs, and other vertebrates for that matter), in and of themselves tell us nothing about the social networks that determine when a person becomes a person, argues Morgan. "It's not the biological material itself which will provide answers to this question, it is the meanings and significance we give to this material."

Her curiosity about the fetuses she happened upon in the musty recesses of a storage closet led Morgan to investigate a small oak box with index cards that accompanied the collection. Each card had a number corresponding to a specimen along with a "crown to rump" measurement and an approximate gestational age.

She searched the college archives for reference to the kinds of ethical questions such a collection would certainly give rise to today. "But no one ever even gave it a thought," says Morgan. "As far as they were concerned, these were objects of nature. We now think of them as objects of culture; we now think of them as being part of us."

About 20 cards had names on them. They corresponded to Mount Holyoke alumnae, many who had gone on to work as doctors and nurses in the Northeast. Among those was Grace V. Gorham, from the class of 1923. She studied medicine at the University of Michigan, where she was one of six women in a class of 250. For 35 years she had a solo practice in Norwalk, Connecticut, in which she delivered more than 5,000 babies. She died in 1998 at the age of 96.

Gorham, a registered Republican, wrote on a 1960 questionnaire that issues of particular concern to her were "maternal mortality, morbidity, still births, neonatal deaths."

In the 1953-54 physiology department annual report, the department chair, Charlotte Haywood, noted in the section headed " GIFTS" that "specimens of human embryos and fetuses have come to our collection at various times from one of our alumnae, Dr. Grace Gorham, an obstetrician. She arrived at her reunion this June with a gift of more of them for us!"

Now the sense of fascinated repulsion Morgan's first encounter with the fetus collection triggered has given way to a different image that she carries around with her. That of a loyal alum, decked out in white for the annual march around the campus, driving to South Hadley on a glorious spring day with a jar full of fetuses - and possibly even a dead baby, sloshing around in a jar filled with formalin - in the back seat of the car. And thinking nothing odd of it.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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