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A photo showing an adult hand cupping what is described as a fetus at 12 weeks has been viral on Facebook for years.
"This is what we all looked like at 12 weeks in the womb. Legal to kill in all 50 states. Anyone think its [sic] not a person? Pass this along. It literally might save a life," reads the text above the photo in the Facebook post. It was posted on June 25, 2015, and readers have been re-sharing the post by the hundreds in recent days.
This post, which had more than 41,000 shares as of July 29, was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The image doesn’t really show a 12-week-old fetus; it shows a doll.
Artist Donna Lee sculpts and paints resin models of fetuses that have grown 12 weeks from the time of conception.
One 2.5-inch doll costs $25 at onetinylife.org. The dolls are designed to be used for educational purposes in schools and pregnancy centers, according to the site.
When the same photo was widely shared in 2013 with a similar caption, Snopes rated it as miscaptioned, meaning the photo is real but the description is misleading.
One note: The age of a fetus can be described from the time of conception (as Lee does on her website), often called "fetal age," or it can be measured from the first day of the pregnant woman’s last menstrual period (LMP), also known as the "gestational age." So, when a fetus is 12 weeks from conception, its gestational age is considered to be 14 weeks. Medical practitioners typically calculate the growth of a pregnancy using LMP, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Dr. Ahmet Baschat, professor of gynecology and obstetrics and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy viewed the photo at PolitiFact’s request. He said that whether the doll was intended to depict a fetus at 12 weeks gestation or 12 weeks from the time of conception, a first trimester fetus would not be able to make the facial expression the doll is making.
"I think the only thing that is true is that the organs are formed, and the fetus looks like a human being (albeit probably not the facial impressions that are implied in this doll)," he said.
Baschat said the fetus would probably "have neutral facial features," compared with those we see on the doll.
Baschat also referred us to Marjorie A. England’s "Color Atlas of Life Before Birth," which features color photographs and illustrations of human embryos and fetuses. Early in the book, England writes that she uses fertilization date (meaning, conception) as the basis for establishing age at the early stages of development. In its illustrations of what a fetus looks like at 12 weeks, the book describes and shows one that measures 82 millimeters — which is about 3.23 inches — crown to rump. Another depicted is described as measuring 85 millimeters, which is about 3.35 inches. That’s nearly an inch longer than Lee’s doll.
The Mayo Clinic reports on its website that at 14 weeks gestation (12 weeks from conception), a fetus is generally 3.5 inches long.
According to the Color Atlas, the fetus has arms, ears, eyes, feet and an umbilical cord that are easily visible at this stage of pregnancy. This is a marked change over the fetus at week 10, England writes: "The ear has moved from the neck on to the head. The eyes have moved to the front of the face."
At week 13, the skin of the fetus is "very thin," the book says, and the fetus may suck its thumb.
The skin of an actual fetus at this stage does not resemble that of an infant born at term or that of an adult. In fact, the fetus’ skin is "transparent" through weeks 15 to 18 gestation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
In her online description of the dolls, Lee says that translucency is "a hard thing to capture" with resin. "I have begun to try to perfect my hand-painting of each model in order to show more deeper undertones and to give a more transparent skin like appearance," Lee writes.
One last note regarding the caption on the photo as it was shared on Facebook: It reads that it’s "legal to kill" in all 50 states. At the time that this Facebook post was made in 2015, women were legally allowed to terminate pregnancies at 12 weeks gestation. But since then, several states have passed restrictive abortion laws that aim to ban early abortions. None of these bans have yet been implemented, and some are being challenged in the court system.
Alabama intends to ban abortion at any stage with an exception for when the mother’s life is at risk. Heartbeat bills have been passed in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. In these states, abortions will be illegal once the heartbeat of the fetus is heard, which ranges from six to eight weeks in a pregnancy.
Facebook post, June 25, 2015
Email interview with Dr. Ahmet Baschat, professor of gynecology and obstetrics and director of the Center for Fetal Therapy at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, July 9, 2019
Utah Department of Health, Information about the Developing Embryo and Fetus, Abortion, and Abortion Alternatives, May 2017
Snopes, Is This a Photograph of a 12-Week Fetus?, November 10, 2013
Donna Lee Originals, Adopted Miniature Clay Dolls, Accessed July 9, 2019
OneTinyLife.org, One Tiny Life, Accessed July 9, 2019
Mayo Clinic, Fetal development: The 2nd trimester, July 12, 2017
WebMD, Your Pregnancy Week by Week: Weeks 9-12, September 11, 2018
MedlinePlus of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Fetal development, June 3, 2019
Kaiser Health News, Early Abortion Bans: Which States Have Passed Them?, June 26, 2019
Marjorie A. England, Color Atlas of Life Before Birth, Normal Fetal Development, 1990
Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy, 2019