Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America

Synopsis

During the past several decades, the fetus has been diversely represented in political debates, medical textbooks and journals, personal memoirs and autobiographies, museum exhibits and mass media, and civil and criminal law. Ourselves Unborn argues that the meanings people attribute to the fetus are not based simply on biological fact or theological truth, but are in fact strongly influenced by competing definitions of personhood and identity, beliefs about knowledge and authority, and assumptions about gender roles and sexuality. In addition, these meanings can be shaped by dramatic historical change: over the course of the twentieth century, medical and technological changes made fetal development more comprehensible, while political and social changes made the fetus a subject of public controversy. Moreover, since the late nineteenth century, questions about how fetal life develops and should be valued have frequently intersected with debates about the authority of science and religion, and the relationship between the individual and society. In examining the contested history of fetal meanings, Sara Dubow brings a fresh perspective to these vital debates.

Excerpt

The fetus is a familiar, contested, and provocative presence in American culture and politics. Ultrasound images used by activists at antiabortion protests, or produced in fetal photo studios where expectant parents can buy greeting cards and other keepsakes, illustrate the proliferation and power of the fetal image in contemporary society. Although ultrasound technology has made a particular image of the fetus extremely recognizable, that image represents only one moment on the historical continuum of encounters with the unborn. The meanings ascribed to the fetus in those encounters are neither inevitable nor self-evident. Rather, the fetus has long been a screen onto which society projects its deepest held assumptions and anxieties. Ourselves Unborn: The Fetus in Modern America examines how, from the late nineteenth to the early twentyfirst century, Americans have articulated those assumptions and anxieties through arguments about the social value, legal identity, and political status of the human fetus.

Some recent examples illustrate how the fetus is currently imagined as part of the body politic, a citizen recognized and protected by the state. In October 2002, the United States Department of Health and Human Services added human embryos to the list of “human subjects” whose welfare must be taken into account by the Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections. The next month, in revising the State Child Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), HHS redefined the term child to begin at the moment of conception, making fetuses eligible for state-sponsored health insurance. In April 2004, Congress signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, making the death of a pregnant woman and her zygote, embryo, or fetus in the execution of a federal crime punishable as two separate criminal violations. And in May 2004, a U.S. district judge in Missouri temporarily prohibited the deportation of a pregnant Mexican woman because “[i]f this child is an American citizen, we can’t send his mother back until he is born.”

The policies regarding stem cell research and health insurance, the making of the killing of an unborn child a federal crime, and the immigration decision illustrate how the state constructs fetal citizens through bureaucratic technologies . . .

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