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From Object of Inquiry to Subject of Public Policy: A History of the Fetus

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 651-655 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0108

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Today, fetal images are ubiquitous. We encounter them everywhere—from family scrapbooks to car advertisements. Frequently, moreover, they are intended to send a political message—on billboards protesting legal abortion, for instance. But their pervasive presence is a recent phenomenon. A century ago, most people had no clear idea what a fetus might look like. Indeed, visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago were able to view handcrafted wax models of embryos. These were objects of curiosity and scientific inquiry. Created by German artist-scientist Friedrich Ziegler, the model embryos were part of a display that also held wax models of starfish, sea urchins, beetle larvae, trout, chicks, and frogs, as well as of developing hearts, brains, skulls, eyes, ears, and teeth. Ziegler’s exhibit, Sara Dubow tells us, won the fair’s highest prize for its evolutionary and developmental illustration of the fair’s theme: “progress” (p 25). Its inclusion in the exposition illustrates the growing scientific and public curiosity towards fetal life, which made the fetus an increasingly popular object of inquiry. Ourselves Unborn follows this history from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

The fetus has long captured the imagination of scientists and the public. And for more than a century, it has been an object of political controversy. Dubow eloquently illustrates how central a role the fetus has played over the past 150 years. She does so by following the history of the fetus from the criminalization of abortion in the latter part of the nineteenth century, to protective labor legislation that excluded women from certain jobs because of their reproductive capacity, to the criminal prosecution for child endangerment of pregnant substance-abusers. Ourselves Unborn joins a growing body of work that emerged in the mid-1990s about the fetus. Over the past two decades, historians, sociologists and medical anthropologists have analyzed the impact that medical technology has had on our view of pregnancy and the fetus. Medical technology, these authors have cautioned, did not merely advance our understanding of prenatal development, but also contributed to a view that positioned women and the fetus in opposition to each other, with competing interests and rights.1 Several scholars have examined the impact that changing notions of pregnancy and the fetus have had on public policy.2 Dubow’s work contributes significantly to our understanding of the ways in which the fetus was constructed—both through medical technology and imagination—and the ways in which its changing meaning shaped the lives of pregnant women. Her careful attention to the ways in which medical technology contributed to changes in the social construction of the fetus and influenced the laws governing women’s lives makes this a book not to be missed.

Perceptions of the fetus, Dubow argues, mirror society’s deeply held assumptions and anxieties. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, scientists and writers “created” the modern embryo. Medical technologies and assumptions about prenatal life significantly influenced the shape the fetus took in the hands of scientists and writers. Dubow describes how, in the late nineteenth century, embryologists in the United States and Europe began to observe and document the developmental stages of the embryo. Scientists interpreted the biological life of the fetus and collected fetuses for study. They sectioned embryos, stained and classified them, and fixed them in paraffin for slides. Through this complex and laborious process, scientists physically constituted the fetus as a biological reality for others to see.

While some studied the corporeal reality of the fetus, others tended to its biographical life. In 1916, Armenouhie Tashjian Lamson, the director of a prenatal clinic in Seattle, published a chronicle of her unborn baby’s nine-month struggle to develop from an egg into a baby boy. Lamson offered the narrative as an “exact transcription” of human development as told by the fetus itself. The “biography” offered not only an “insider’s” view, it also became a vehicle that allowed Lamson to argue for women’s equality, better nutrition, cleaner environments, and equal parenting responsibilities for mothers and fathers.

As the fetus garnered more attention, it also moved from being an object of inquiry to being the subject of public policy. Dubow chronicles...

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