By modern standards, the controversy over the above pictorial seems almost incomprehensible. Yet, when Life magazine decided to publish it on April 11st 1938, the magazine’s editors knew that it would be one of the biggest controversies of Life’s early years.
The pictorial was titled “The Birth of a Baby” and included pictures from a film by the same title produced to reduce the maternal death rate. Both the 72-minute educational film and 35-paneled pictorial tell the fictional story of a married woman who becomes pregnant and who learns, along with the reader, about the major stages of pregnancy and birth. The movie had been banned in several U.S. cities for its ‘indecency’ , but Life decided to go ahead with their pictorial. Predictably enough, its appearance in a widely published news magazine for all audiences caused an immediate uproar in newspapers from Paris to Seattle, although Life cleared the stories with officials and warned its readers in advance.
Although a Gallup poll showed 76% of people were against a ban, thirty three U.S. cities banned the magazine, along with Canada and the state of Pennsylvania. Roy Larsen, LIFE’s publisher (and later chairman of Time Inc.’s executive committee) and six newsdealers were arrested. Lawsuits followed but every indecency charge brought before court was thrown out, except in Boston, leading to one headline: “Storks still bring Boston babies”. In this era, where the phrase “Banned in Boston” entered lexicons, the debate was the most intense in the-then more traditional bastions of WASP establishment: New England. Many important figures of the age weighed in; that arbitrator of good taste, the New York police department, mused that the pictorial “would be detrimental to the morals of youth.” In the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt was more ponderous: “I never think that honest things are bad.” The New Yorker published a parody, and many questioned the decision to ban these pictures, which contained no nudity nor depictions of sexual activity, while allowing other prurient magazines to be sold.
Always the one for bon mot, Life magazine described the controversy as pro-Life and anti-Life. Eventually, it proved to be a blessing in disguise for then-fledgling magazine. Even before Conde Nast mastered the art of $1-magazine, Life was marketed as a cheap magazine for all. Yes, its sales numbered around a million, but Life was sold at 10 cents per issue, which didn’t fully cover the expense and the magazine lost money from the beginning;. The controversy which followed the decision to print the film turned out to be a huge publicity boon for the magazine.
In the subsequent trial, the famed censorship lawyer Morris Ernst successfully defended the magazine. The landmark decision that resulted was to help to destigmatize public representations of pregnancy and birth. In 1965, Life published Lennart Nilsson’s photos of a fetus without much criticism and opposition. Looking back with more than seventy-years of hindsight, the entire episode seems quaint but it is oddly current too: in the recent years, the debate — decidedly quieter than the one above, but a debate nonetheless — is on whether Facebook should allow breast-feeding pictures online. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.