Shedding light onto a fetus’s life

When an international best seller, in this case «A Child is Born,» which has sold 40 million copies, is translated into Greek, it is bound to generate interest, all the more so since the particular edition (released by Orfeas publications) provides access into a unique and hardly familiar stage of human development: the life of the fetus, from the moment it is conceived until the moment of birth. Eighty-two-year-old Swede Lennart Nilsson has dedicated his life to endoscopic imaging and is considered a pioneer in the field. His photographs illustrate the text of his close collaborator Professor Lars Hamberger in this striking edition which was reviewed last year for the fourth time. Both Nilsson and Hamberger were in Greece for the presentation of the edition’s Greek translation as well as Nilsson’s photography exhibition, which Queen Sylvia of Sweden recently opened at the New Digital Planetarium of the Eugenides Foundation. Have you wondered why you chose to photograph fetuses? I started out as a photojournalist in 1945 and I spent three months in Lapland, during a harsh winter. I was photographing everyday people and I happened to come across a midwife, who went from house to house in the snow to deliver babies. I followed her and this turned out to be an overwhelming experience for me. I witnessed new lives being born. Three years later, I went to a hospital in Stockholm and took photographs of fetuses in formalin; that was the beginning. It was then that I started to seriously think about endoscopic imaging. Now, if you ask me why I do it, I will say this: I think I want to tell people that something so extraordinary takes place so near us. It happens in someone’s belly, yet it is invisible. I want to demonstrate how this miracle can become visible in the most beautiful way. When you started out, were there no qualms about having a photographer present during sensitive medical examinations? That is the main problem when working on such a book. In Sweden, while the law itself is liberal, its application is rather strict, which is the opposite of what happens in the United States, where research is carried out under much more liberal circumstances. When preparing such a book, one comes across moral dilemmas, like what is morally acceptable, where the limits are and so on. We try to remain within the limits and at the same time give another angle to what we call the birth of a new life. What is new in your book’s fourth edition? The application of new technology, namely the use of the three-dimensional ultrasound, is one of the most important things we point out in this book. We have pictures of an eight-week-old fetus just 5 centimeters long; we filmed it with the three-dimensional ultrasound and realized it makes the exact same movements as a normal person; it closes its eyes, caresses its head… Thanks to technology, we can avoid invading a woman’s vagina, as was the case with endoscopic imaging. The quality of the photographs provided by this evolved ultrasound is also so good that we were able to point out the similar features between a pregnant woman and the little girl she was carrying. Lars Hamberger: I should add that the ultrasound is an absolutely moral method. Our aim was to show that a fetus lives an entire life in its mother’s womb. We have shots depicting the fetus’s expression after the mother has completed a meal and we can discern satisfaction. We saw that the fetus gets sleepy after a heavy meal, just like we do and it excretes when it wakes up. We wanted to show the world that an eight-week-old fetus is a person like us and does the same things. Is there finally an answer to the question «When does human life start?» This involves three different issues: a moral, a theological and a legal one. Approaching those issues varies in different societies and cultures. Those who object to abortions worldwide have used Nilsson’s photographs because they prove that an eight-week-old fetus functions like a normal person. On the other hand, on purely scientific terms, life starts when the ovum meets the sperm, or, to be more specific, when the division of the first cell takes place. We have endlessly discussed this and it is a question we always expect at press conferences. And when thinking about what answer to give, Nilsson always tells me, «I will say the usual, that life starts with a kiss.» The interview was translated from Greek into English.