Women's and Gender Studies Program

 

Date of this Version

2017

Citation

Published in Journal of Social History (2018), 43 pp. doi:10.1093/jsh/shx035

Comments

Copyright © 2017 Rose Holz. Published by Oxford University Press. Used by permission.

Abstract

This multidisciplinary essay examines the hugely influential—yet surprisingly overlooked—Birth Series sculptures. Created in 1939 by Dr. Robert L. Dickinson (obstetrician-gynecologist and leader of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) and sculptor Abram Belskie, they illustrate the process of human development from fertilization through delivery. First displayed at the 1939–1940 World’s Fair in New York City, they were reproduced in a variety of forms and sent out across the United States and overseas. Hardly a brief fad, their popularity persisted into the 1980s. This essay has four purposes. First, it tells the stories of Dickinson and Belskie to appreciate their contributions as artists to twentieth-century medical knowledge. Second, it demonstrates that the sculptures serve as the missing link in the rise of modern twentieth-century visions of pregnancy, decades before Lennart Nilsson’s much-heralded photographs in Life magazine in the 1960s. Third, it assesses the uniqueness of the visual story the Birth Series told, in that it depicted in utero development as a romantic tale that began with the union of sperm and egg and unfolded to reveal the birth of a precious child—imagery that would later become the hallmarks of the modern pro-life movement. Fourth, it addresses the conundrum of Dickinson’s intent. A deeply religious man, Dickinson hardly intended to make a visual case against abortion. Rather, he believed firmly in the necessity of its practice, not despite his religious views but because of them. He then set out to make the religious case for contraception and abortion.