After Lexi Oliver Fretz’s son was born too early to survive outside the womb, she wanted to preserve his memory. She cupped 19-week-old Walter in her hands and tearfully asked her husband to take a photo.
Two years later, that photo appeared without her permission in an August video from the antiabortion activists at the center of the national debate over Planned Parenthood.
“A friend texted me to say, 'Have you seen Walter in that video?'” she said. “We were shocked, like: What’s going on here?”
Fretz, a photographer in rural Pennsylvania, had posted several portraits of Walter on her blog, she said, so friends would know why she was no longer pregnant. The pictures quickly went viral, resonating with families who had suffered miscarriages. Some commented: I feel less alone. (See photos of Fretz holding her stillborn son here.)
At the time, Fretz hoped Walter’s story would draw attention to the confusion and anguish of preterm labor. She remembers getting a pedicure that day in June. She was in Indiana for a wedding when the bleeding started. She landed in the emergency room, then the maternity ward, writhing in pain. Walter arrived with tiny fingers and toes. Her husband rushed to grab the camera.
Her family's tragedy became a part of the clash over abortion in recent months as Republicans seek to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives more than $500 million in funding from the government, though none of those funds go toward pregnancy termination.
David Daleiden, the antiabortion group’s founder, says the nearly 12 hours of videos he released this summer proves Planned Parenthood is profiting from the sale of aborted fetus tissue. The 11 states that launched investigations into the clinics, however, have found no evidence supporting the accusation.
Conservative lawmakers at a hearing last week in Washington repeatedly mentioned the videos, which show Planned Parenthood employees speaking candidly about donating fetal tissue to researchers. At the GOP presidential debate last month, candidate Carly Fiorina described a grisly scene that fact checkers later determined does not exist. "I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes," Fiorina said. "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' "
She may have been referring to the video that features Walter. In the 10-minute segment, a woman who says she previously worked at a California company that supplies human tissue to researchers talks about seeing an aborted fetus with a beating heart in a pathology lab at a Planned Parenthood clinic. "I remember holding that fetus in my hand when everybody else was busy," Holly O'Donnell says, "and I started crying, and opened the lid, and put it back in."
As O'Donnell speaks, an image appears on the screen: Walter, in his mother's hands.
Daleiden has faced questions for using a photo of a stillborn fetus as evidence in the abortion debate. “If you are talking about organ harvesting and the abortions and how terrible they are, why would you use a stillborn fetus, which is not a function of an abortion?” CNN's Chris Cuomo asked him Tuesday.
“Do you think the fetuses are different somehow?” Daleiden responded. “It’s the same gestational age. It’s the same baby whether it’s born dead or alive, whether its organs are harvested or not.”
“This is such an emotional thing,” Cuomo said. “It is so religious for people, it’s so moral for people. That baby was not aborted. It matters in the context of your conversation."
As strangers argued about her son on the national news, Fretz kept her three young daughters away from the television. She wouldn't let them listen to her talk about Walter in a phone interview on MSNBC.
She and her husband, a middle school math teacher, want to avoid the subject of abortion until their girls are older. She identifies as pro-life, a devout Christian, but she isn't particularly interested in politics. She hasn't closely followed the Planned Parenthood debate or watched the videos.
"I have a sensitive stomach," she says, "and a sensitive heart."
Once the shock wore off, Fretz chose not to take any action against Daleiden for using her family photo to illustrate an aborted fetus. She says she trusts God's plan. "Walter is serving a purpose, and maybe that purpose is to protect the unborn."
She tries to stick to her routine, meanwhile, in Greencastle, Pa.: shooting weddings, helping the girls with spelling homework, playing Uno and watching "Little House on the Prairie."
After friends and social media followers noticed Walter's photo in the video, Daleiden sent her a message on Facebook. He told her the portrait shows viewers what a fetus can look like at 19 weeks.
Fretz said that was okay with her.