Elevate Difference

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America

Sara Dubow navigates the complexities of an impassioned and divisive issue in Ourselves Unborn. She takes a calculated historical look at how Americans have interpreted the fetus and pregnancy throughout ever-shifting political realities. Her thesis: Americans have cast their social and cultural anxieties onto the fetus, which often results in abortion-related policies that serve ulterior motives.

Dubow explains that, for centuries, Americans’ insecurities about racial, social, and economic issues were projected onto the bodies of pregnant women. In the nineteenth century, for example, when White Americans were consumed with taking over western territories, abortion politics became paramount. Women were urged to reproduce in order to populate the expanding country, and the fetus became not a private symbol of a growing family, but a social symbol of a growing nation. Racial tensions about the decreasing fertility rate among White Protestant women were played out on the fetus, and women’s role as mothers became even more of a national imperative.

I’m glad the author points out that these biased sentiments are not linked to one historical moment; instead, she writes that this theme resonates in recent Islamophobic statements about the need for Christian women to increase their fertility rates to match those of Muslim women.

Dubow explains the many ways in which otherwise inexplicable phenomena were projected onto the fetus. Unsure about the scientific and medical aspects of human development, social ills were found to be rooted in pregnancy. Dubow shares information about how social problems from drunkenness to criminality were traced back to mothers’ emotional states during pregnancy. The mother was always the culprit.

Stretching into the twentieth century, Ourselves Unborn is punctuated by cases where pregnant women were considered medically incompetent. These cases highlight how the medical and legal professions painted pregnancy as a mysterious state where the fetus takes precedent and a woman becomes simply a vessel for new life. Dubow describes how the “fetal pain” and “abortion trauma” mantras of the 1980s played into this narrative.

Dubow ends her discussion with the 2007 Gonzalez v. Carhart case, a 5-4 decision that upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act without an exception for the health of the woman. The decision portrays Dubow's points with stark clarity, as Justice Kennedy supports his decision is by claiming the Court is protecting women from a decision they would later regret. Readers can understand that Kennedy is not concerned with the unborn, but with the proper place of women in society. That proper place, as dictated by centuries of policy, is a child-bearer.

Using Dubow’s lens, today’s abortion controversies relate to larger questions about the interplay of race and gender in American politics. This can be seen in the GOP’s recent attacks on Planned Parenthood and state laws that curtail abortion rights. Dubow’s theories illustrate how these and similar anti-abortion efforts stem more from policymakers' discomfort with women’s agency in making their own medical choices rather than from a sincere desire to protect fetuses.

Written by: Andrea Gittleman, April 7th 2011