Story of the "Fetal Hand Grasp" Photograph
Story and photo by Michael Clancy

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hand of hope, photo by Michael Clancy

© Michael Clancy •

During a spina bifida corrective procedure at twenty-one weeks in utero, Samuel thrusts his tiny hand out of the surgical opening of his mother's uterus. As the doctor lifts his hand, Samuel reacts to the touch and squeezes the doctor's finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shakes the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. At that moment, I took this "Fetal Hand Grasp" photo.As a photojournalist, my job is to tell stories through pictures. The experience of taking this photograph has had a profound effect on me, and I'm proud to share this moment with you.

As a veteran photojournalist in Nashville, Tennessee, I was hired by USA Today newspaper to photograph a spina bifida corrective surgical procedure. It was to be performed on a twenty-one week old fetus in utero at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. At that time, in 1999, twenty-one weeks in utero was the earliest that the surgical team would consider for surgery. The worst possible outcome would be that the surgery would cause premature delivery, and no child born earlier than twenty-three weeks had survived.

The tension could be felt in the operating room as the surgery began. A typical C-section incision was made to access the uterus, which was then lifted out and laid at the junction of the mother's thighs. The entire procedure would take place within the uterus, and no part of the child was to breach the surgical opening. During the procedure, the position of the fetus was adjusted by gently manipulating the outside of the uterus. The entire surgical procedure on the child was completed in 1 hour and thirteen minutes. When it was over, the surgical team breathed a sigh of relief, as did I.

As a doctor asked me what speed of film I was using, out of the corner of my eye I saw the uterus shake, but no one's hands were near it. It was shaking from within. Suddenly, an entire arm thrust out of the opening, then pulled back until just a little hand was showing. The doctor reached over and lifted the hand, which reacted and squeezed the doctor's finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shook the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. I took the picture! Wow! It happened so fast that the nurse standing next to me asked, "What happened?" "The child reached out," I said. "Oh. They do that all the time," she responded.

The surgical opening to the uterus was closed and the uterus was then put back into the mother and the C-section opening was closed.

It was ten days before I knew if the picture was even in focus. To ensure no digital manipulation of images before they see them, USA Today requires that film be submitted unprocessed. When the photo editor finally phoned me he said, "It's the most incredible picture I've ever seen."

Samuel's Gift

The greatest gift I could ever have received as a photojournalist was given to me by an unborn child. A moment in time. Samuel held tight enough ..... and long enough to stop the action in this picture.

Publishers note:

Michael is very generous with photo and story reproduction rights as he wants this incredible story to be told. For a printable 8x10 version of this photo please visit Michael Clancy’s Website. Michael also encourages everyone to circulate this story too all who may or may not be interested.

Use of the Picture

If you are a non-profit organization and want to post the picture of Samuel reaching from his mother's womb on your website, send Michael your website address and he will review your site. If the picture will be used in a respectful manner that does honor to the image, he will send you a digital file to post on your site at no cost. He does request that if you post the picture, that you link to his site so he can be assured the information about the picture stays accurate. If you are a non-profit organization and want to publish the picture in handouts etc... for counseling those seeking an abortion, please e-mail Michael for a request to use the picture.

If you have any questions about permission to use the photo or about ordering an 8x10 print, please e-mail Michael.

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