1938 April 11

“Birth of a Baby” Public Health Photographs Called Obscene


Life Magazine published 35 photographs from the public health education film, Birth of a Baby. Some moralists on this day called the pictures “obscene.” The magazine was banned in 33 cities and in the entire state of Pennsylvania because the photographs were considered obscene. The photographs are all scientifically clinical and not the least bit erotic. The mother’s body is draped with sheets, but photographs clearly show the baby emerging from her vagina.

Morris Ernst, a lawyer who championed cases that expanded Americans’ rights to privacy and freedom from censorship, successfully represented the magazine at trial over obscenity. Most famously, Ernst also successfully ended the U.S. Customs ban on the acclaimed novel Ulysses by James Joyce on December 6, 1933.

The film, The Birth of a Baby, from which the photographs were taken, was banned in New York, Cincinnati, Omaha, and Lynchburg, Virginia. The New York state censorship board found the film “indecent,” “immoral,” and likely “to corrupt morals.” It did, however, approve a special license to show the film for “educational purposes,” but not in “places of amusement.”

See the pictures: http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/the-birth-of-a-baby/

Learn more about the film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0169615/

And more: Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935 (2007)

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