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Feb. 22, 2024Des Moines, Iowa |  By: AP

Sex ed classes in some states may soon watch a fetal development video from an anti-abortion group

a classroom

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Baby Olivia isn’t a real baby. It’s an animated fetus that develops over the course of a three-minute video that has become a new front in state-level abortion politics.

Bills in the Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia legislatures would require public school students to watch a video like Baby Olivia, which was created by an organization that opposes abortion. The legislation mirrors a North Dakota law passed last year.

The organization, Live Action, and supporters of the legislation say it would teach kids where they came from and encourage an appreciation for human life. But some educators and physicians say the video is deceptive and problematic for a young audience.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a professional organization with over 60,000 members, said in an email that the video is anti-abortion misinformation “designed to manipulate the emotions of viewers.”

Here’s a primer on the video and the debate it has sparked:


Who is Baby Olivia?

Baby Olivia is the starring character in an animated video that’s meant to visualize development in the womb. A voiceover introduces viewers to Olivia as an illustration of a fully developed baby in utero appears on screen. Olivia’s mouth and eyes open and close, and her hands move.

“Though she has yet to greet the outside world, she has already completed an amazing journey,” the narrator says.

What is Live Action?

Live Action says on its website it “exists today to shift public opinion” on abortion and is dedicated to supporting a “culture of life.”

Founder Lila Rose said the video was designed to be informative, lifelike and appropriate for anyone, and made in consultation with doctors. Of the six, two are trained OB-GYNs; the others are trained in anatomy, biochemistry, pediatric medicine and neuroscience.

The organization spent nearly $5 million in 2022 to create and distribute content widely, according to filing reports. Those reports also show Live Action more than quadrupled its cash from contributions and grants in just four years, totaling $14 million in 2022.

Live Action also is known for efforts to expose Planned Parenthood, publishing videos and reports obtained by posing as patients.

What’s in the video?

The video shows an egg being fertilized and implanted, then walks through embryonic and fetal developments over the course of a pregnancy.

It calls out general markers in what Rose said is an “average developmental process” using “weeks after fertilization.” That’s different from “weeks after the last menstrual cycle,” which is what a pregnant person would typically hear from a doctor.

Iowa physicians and educators said in a letter to state lawmakers that by using weeks after fertilization, the video misleads viewers because the framing indicates milestones happen about two weeks earlier than is accurate.

Rose argued that “weeks after fertilization” is more typical of an academic context, like biology class, and Live Action said critics calling out inaccuracies are not taking that difference into account.

What else do critics point to?

The Iowa physicians and educators said references to fetal “heartbeat” are widely disputed. At six weeks, the embryo isn’t yet a fetus and doesn’t have a heart.

The video also describes the animated figure’s motion and actions with words like “playing,” “exploring,” “sighing,” and making “speaking movements.” Those words assign human traits and properties to a fetus that are more sophisticated than medicine can prove, said Emily Boevers, a practicing OB-GYN in Iowa and co-founder of Iowans for Health Liberty, which advocates for reproductive health care.

There are signals that the brain is developing and functioning, Boevers said, but the video’s language implies “a level of intention that we just can’t say is present.”

What do supporters of the bills say?

Iowa Rep. Luana Stoltenberg, a Republican, said she was impressed by the video’s portrayal of science, and she believes showing fetal development could help curious kids understand where they came from.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Stoltenberg said. “Maybe a young child learns how they are developed and grow and so if they become pregnant, they decide maybe I don’t want an abortion? Is that a horrible thing?”

Rose said she believes backlash is being driven by abortion rights advocates who don’t want imagery of life in the womb shown because it “directly threatens their worldview, which is that this is not a life that is worthy of protection.”

Sen. Patricia Rucker, a Republican in West Virginia, said Baby Olivia isn’t preaching or partisan. It shows human growth as “a beautiful, miraculous thing” — not unlike learning how a chick develops — and that teachers can “springboard from that to further explanation.”

What do schools already teach about sex and pregnancy?

Many states have started to more strictly regulate what is taught about sex education and when. State and federal agencies’ goal in educating students is typically to prevent teen pregnancies and reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Teaching kids about pregnancy and conception should be part of an all-encompassing and medically accurate curriculum, said Katie Christensen, North Dakota’s Planned Parenthood director who has a graduate degree in human development and family science.

“When we’re looking at promoting healthy well-being, especially in our adolescents, never once have I seen it said ... ‘These kids really need to see an ultrasound video,’” Christensen said.

North Dakota’s law requires health and human sexuality courses to include a three-minute ultrasound video and a computer-generated rendering of development in the womb. While the law doesn’t mandate showing Baby Olivia, the state’s department of public instruction specifically references it as an option.

The Associated Press asked 12 of North Dakota’s largest school districts about the video. Of the 10 that replied, five use Baby Olivia. One is Fargo Public Schools, which accounts for about 10% of the state’s students and additionally shows a second video to ninth graders.

Bismarck, the largest district, does not use Baby Olivia. West Fargo Public Schools shows a “significantly longer” video that already was part of the curriculum, the district told the AP in an email, adding that it “covers other information about pregnancy that helps teach additional health standards.”

Iowa’s latest proposal, which passed in committee, would require a video — Baby Olivia or something “comparable” — shown starting in the seventh grade.

West Virginia’s proposal would require showing, specifically, Baby Olivia to eighth and 10th graders. Rucker said she expects it to be merged with other bills before it moves to the next step.

Missouri would require the Baby Olivia video by the third grade, while Kentucky’s proposal allows any video that meets the standards as early as sixth grade. Both of these bills were introduced in January but have not received hearings.