Gotta read this: the child of the “Fetal Hand Grasp” photo

From the blog And Sometimes Tea. My emphases:

It has been ten years since photographer Michael Clancy, then pro-choice, took some pictures during a fetal surgery that changed his mind about abortion. And that famous picture is still changing minds and hearts about abortion–something the little boy in the original picture is very happy about:

"When I see that picture, the first thing I think of is how special and lucky I am to have God use me that way," Samuel told "I feel very thankful that I was in that picture."

On Aug. 19, 1999, photographer Michael Clancy shot the "Fetal Hand Grasp" — his picture of a 21-week-old fetus grasping a doctor’s finger during innovative surgery to correct spina bifida. Nearly four months later, on Dec. 2, Samuel Armas was "born famous."

The photo, which first appeared in USA Today on Sept. 7, 1999, quickly spread across the globe as proof of development in the womb and was later cited during congressional debates on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which passed in 2000.

"It’s just a miracle picture, a miracle moment," Clancy told "It shows the earliest human interaction ever recorded."

Samuel, now 9 and living in Villa Rica, Ga., said the photo likely gave countless "babies their right to live" and forced many others to debate their beliefs on abortion, something he’s proud of.

"It’s very important to me," Samuel said of the photograph. "A lot of babies would’ve lost their lives if that didn’t happen."

Julie Armas, Samuel’s mother, said her eldest son has a "very strong sense of right and wrong" and understands the impact of his unconventional first baby photo.

"He identifies it more in terms of a pro-life message more than anything," she told "This photo happened and God used it to show people that this baby in mom’s tummy is alive. He’s pleased that his photo conveyed that message."

Michael Clancy’s famous picture can be seen with the article (click on the thumbnail pictures) or on his website, here.

Given Samuel’s beautiful understanding of how his pre-birth picture has been used to help people decide not to abort, I think it’s fair to call him the first pro-life advocate who was a pro-life advocate while still unborn. God has certainly blessed this beautiful young man!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JoyfulMom7 says:

    Father, thank you for sharing this lovely story. What an inspiration!

  2. Seminarian says:

    What do you all think about the debunking of this?

  3. Nicknackpaddywack says:

    Last night on NPR I had to listen as the feminist author of “Bad Mother” (by intention, an ironic title) explained how and why she had her four and a half month old baby in the womb aborted because there was some chance (less than fifty percent, it turned out, and she knew it) that he would be born mentally retarded and have a high risk for health problems. She cried – but not tears of genuine remorse. She wants to face the reality of it, calls it a baby instead of a fetus and recognizes the grim reality of what happens in abortion. But it is all uttered in the atmosphere of the therapeutic. She doesn’t face the moral reality of it: the chance that this decision was simply wrong, that it implied a judgement that a retarded life is not worth living, that she has no right to be the arbiter of life and death, that is was a basically selfish decision. This from the same person who spends a chapter of her memoir doing some old fashioned liberal moralistic hand-wringing over whether it is right to hire a cleaning lady. Clearly, something has gone amiss in the moral formation of this woman.

    By contrast, the moral freshness and clarity of this pro-life story lifts me up from the murky bog.

  4. I don’t live that far from Villa Rica. I didn’t know it was a local family. That is an amazing photo. Imagine to be that child and looking at the earliest photo of yourself that way.

  5. MargaretMN says:

    What difference does it make if the baby’s hand “flopped out” or if it happened to stick out? Anyone who has seen a newborn knows that they don’t have much strength and this baby was pre-born. The imagine of the hand itself, so perfectly formed, recognizable and in a grasping position while not even out of the womb is the thing that impacts most people, probably. Only these feminists who make the tough argument affirming that every woman has the power over life and death, abortion isn’t an easy choice but freedom’s not cheap, etc. are the only ones left in this argument. With photos this is and ultrasounds, the ability to save very premature babies, nobody makes the non-viable or “blob of tissue” argument anymore because it’s demonstrably false.

  6. Irenaeus says:

    Erin Manning, AKA Red Cardigan, who blogs at And Sometimes Tea, from which Father has pulled this piece, is an incredible human being, an incredible Catholic, an incredible writer, an incredible blogger. So let me plug her, given this opportunity: you all should read her regularly. She’s one of the few bloggers really worth reading. I’ve got a PhD in religion, well published and all that, and I’m jealous of her knowledge and abilities. Non sum dignus and all that. I mean it.

  7. Father Bartoloma says:

    Thank you for this very beautiful story. It makes me think of Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” That little fellow will be a prophet for the pro-life cause as he continues to grow up.

  8. Sharon says:

    Snopes is probably calling it as it sees it. The doctor’s word seems to have more value than the photographer’s words. I wonder if any of the other people present in the operating theatre at the time have spoken to support one side or the other.

    I used to have great faith in Snopes until I accessed them twice about an image
    with accompanying text which demeaned women. The first time I accessed Snopes they exposed that the text was phony and the second time, some years later, they said that the text was probably phony but it probably referred to the condition of women at the time.

    Maybe Snopes isn’t as objective as we would like them to be i.e. do they have a feminist and/or anti-life agenda.

  9. isabella says:

    I think Snopes missed the call on this one. As far as being unable to move when anesthetized, why are people routinely strapped down for surgery? Did the doctor really say that, in the context used by Snopes? Just because you aren’t conscious doesn’t mean you are immobile. You might not be aware of moving, but that doesn’t mean you *can’t* move. This picture is such a beautiful image to go to sleep with in a little while. That is certainly the hand of a baby, and I missed it because I was away from the Church then.

    Also, from my own experience, I’ve awakened during surgery before. The docs were all swearing at each other. I remember being strapped down, verified it with my doctor after the fact when I was undrugged, and it really happened. I asked him why I was restrained if I was supposed to be anesthetized. He said it was to keep me from flopping around and pulling out tubes and IV lines, etc. So if adult surgical patients can move, I don’t see why the baby couldn’t – regardless of what they said about it being impossible.

  10. ckdexterhaven says:

    The photographer was pro choice going into that operating room, but left pro life.

    As for Snopes, who ya gonna believe? Snopes, or your lyin’ eyes?

  11. momoften says:

    I went to a fundraiser (RTL) that featured John Clancy. He had indeed talked about the comments made during the surgery, and how the comments changed so very quickly and often afterwards. Even if one did not believe Samuel thrust his hand out, the picture shows a BABY’s hand grasping the finger of the surgeon….not a blob of cells from a fetus. The picture will continue to infuriate those trying to hide the truth….Abortion kills babies.

  12. MargaretMN says:

    I think the issue with the anesthesia was whether the baby could grasp the doctor’s hand. I think in any case,that’s doubtful (we aren’t talking about a baby alien bursting out of the mom’s womb, ready to conquer the world!) and what we are seeing is the doctor nudging the baby’s hand, which accords with what the doctor said. I still say that the most powerful thing about the image is that at 21 weeks (“previable”) a baby’s hand (and the rest of it) is undeniably human and that most people aren’t confronted with that image and that fact when they are talking about the “choice.”

  13. therese b says:

    I have observed both the grab reflex (stroke the fingertips while the hand is curled up), and the sucking reflex ( gently stroke the middle of the underside of the baby’s lower lip and it will suck your finger into its mouth) in my own sleeping babies. It makes perfect evolutionary sense, since the grab reflex allows babies to anchor securely when being carried – and otherwise they would fall off when asleep. The grab reflex goes by the time they can lift their heads (from memory). You can even test your own suck reflex in the same way and your mouth will respond by producing saliva. The debunking is entirely political.

  14. Lourdes says:

    I have a videotape of this event somewhere. It was on 60 minutes, or Dateline, or one of those shows when the surgery first happened. When you see the video, it’s quite stunning. It really looks like the baby stuck his hand out and grabbed the doctor’s finger. Perhaps someone could do a search for a YouTube video of the event, I’m not too good at finding things on the internet.

  15. Maureen says:

    Re: Snopes —

    I respect the Mikkelsons, but they have in recent years become rather politicized in what evidence they will accept or not accept. Sorta like CNN, although not quite as bad of an accuracy shortfall.

    So believe Snopes on issues like computer viruses and finance hoaxes, but take anything involved with controversial politics with a grain of salt. Sorry.

  16. Laurinda says:

    I am very disappointed to have read what snopes has put out about this photo. They say that the hand popped out and the doctor put the hand back in the womb. However, upon looking at the series of pictures if a doctor was going to put the hand back in the womb he wouldn’t have started touching it with his middle finger and then push it back in, that doesn’t make any sense. He would have gently touched it with several fingers to ensure the safety of the baby.

    I won’t be trusting snopes ever again.

  17. Amy says:

    My husband and I just saw our four-and-a-half-month unborn baby on an ultrasound last week, and as much as that baby was moving around, I would believe him/her capable of grabbing someone’s hand! He was kicking and squirming, and sucking his thumb! :D Whether anesthesia affects that kind of activity, I don’t know, but it is certainly true that, without anesthesia, an unborn child at that age *could* grasp someone’s finger. All the pregnancy development websites tell you that, secular as well as pro-life ones! All this Snopes controversy seems rather beside the point.

  18. Rancher says:

    What this excerpt from the entire article does not mention in detail is the conversion of the photographer Michael Clancy from pro-choice to ardent pro-life. Mr. Clancy now spends full time giving pro-life/anti-abortion talks around the world. Not only is the baby (now young man) a living testiment to the sanctity of life but God used the photographer both in terms of taking the picture and his conversion for that purpose as well.

  19. Amy P. says:

    While a fictional television show, FOX’s “House” did something similar to this on an episode a year or two ago. A VERY powerful pro-life moment that even got to the conscience of the usually irascible, “it’s a fetus” Dr. House. Below is a summary, I can’t seem to find a clip of the scene, but it’s powerful.

  20. Garrett says:

    Huh! I’m also a Samuel, living and having grown up just 10 minutes southwest of Villa Rica, in Carrollton (the county seat). Never even heard of this kid, and have lived within just a few miles of his home for my entire life. Very beautiful story.

  21. Sandra in Severn says:

    Never will trust “snopes” as a fact check site, I trust Wilkipedia more (and HAVE verified information posted to wikipedia entries) than much of what I have read on Snopes. It’s just a couple that at first tried to keep their bias out, but… well. they are a less than sterling choice for checking facts.,,,, and

    In classes I have taught, I will not allow SNOPES to be used as a reference.

    This is a beautiful story, and the conversion of Michael Clancy is a powerful one. (I have heard him speak about it). Thank-you Father for sharing this.

  22. Bill in Texas says:

    Snopes’ take on the photo is exactly that — their take. They present the doctor’s statement, the photographer’s, and they basically say what they think about it: real photo, mistaken explanation. You don’t have to agree with them, and the Mikkelson’s don’t expect everyone to do so. That does not make them untrustworthy liars or guilty of pro-abortion bias. The value in the Snopes article is that they established that the photo is real — shooting down those deniers who said it was a pro-life fake.

    I edit for a living. This means lots of fact checking. In checking facts, you never, ever, rely on just one source, not Snopes, not Wikipedia, not even necessarily on eye-witness accounts. You gather the facts that you can, and you make your best call. Most of the time it’s easy to make the right call. Sometimes there’s room for a difference of opinion. But being responsible means not relying on a single source for your information.

    As someone else has said, the Snopes analysis of what happened is beside the point. The point is that unborn babies are living human beings, with a right to life. Even though the doctor in this case doesn’t seem to feel that the child voluntarily or reflexively grabbed his finger, the very fact that he does surgery on children before birth tells you that he knows, as we do, that the child is alive and worthy of our best efforts at care.

  23. Roland de Chanson says:


    Erin Manning is not incredible at all — she is most eminently believable, and indeed worthy of belief. She is a woman who would make an excellent priest, were the Church able to ordain women. I, for one, would take her sermons to heart. And I do – both at her own blog ( and at Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con. (

    Excellent tribute to a outstanding writer. (BTW, just joking about the “incredible” part — I know exactly what you meant and you are right.)

    Benedicat te Dominus.

  24. Passerby says:

    I don’t care for snopes at all concerning verifying anything. Their findings seem to always be liberal, not factual.

    If they are trying to verify things, then just tell the unbiased facts and not let their political views show in their findings.

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