- Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America
The great strength of this book is the author’s wide-angle lens on the human fetus across more than a century of American culture and politics. Covering the late nineteenth century through the contemporary moment, Sara Dubow offers a thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and comprehensive biography of the unborn. Readers interested in the history of medicine, science, and technology, as well as the history of women’s health and reproduction, will find much to savor here. And there is enough material on race and class to satisfy social scientists and others interested in inequality. Yet the book’s extensive scope means that many ideas and themes remain underexamined; the reader latches onto compelling little nuggets, hopes for more details, and then is carried forth into the next chapter.
The book is organized roughly chronologically, beginning in the 1870s and ending in the present. In her smart, engaging introduction, Dubow lays out the book’s central premise—that the American fetus across time and space has held multiple meanings in specific sociohistorical contexts. This is familiar ground for many of us who toil in the subfield we informally refer to as “fetal studies,” but it will be useful for readers unfamiliar with this literature.
Chapter 1 tracks shifts in scientific and medical knowledge about prenatal life, linking these to emergent antiabortion politics and eugenics. Chapter 2 moves on to an examination of how fetal bodies were interpreted—visualized, collected, represented, studied, and adjudicated—from the 1930s through the 1970s. During this period, the fetus attained a biographical and psychological life, and questions of viability rather than separability (from pregnant women) became relevant.
Chapter 3 is perhaps the most interesting and original in the book. Focused on questions of fetal personhood from 1973 to 1976, crucial post-Roe years, the chapter offers a compelling and impressively detailed account of the manslaughter trial of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, an African American abortion provider. Here, Dubow weaves abortion politics, fetal personhood, questions of viability, race and class, urban strife, and religion into a dramatic and cogently argued narrative. This chapter is an important contribution to scholarship on the specificities of fetal personhood, showing that the fetus qua person did not simply spring forth from the universe, but was rather firmly grounded in concrete, deeply vexatious historical circumstances.
Chapter 4 moves into the period between the 1970s and the 1990s, difficult years for abortion rights advocates as religious conservatives advanced the idea and practice of fetal rights. Dubow does an excellent job of documenting the ways in which the legal and judicial spheres aided and abetted this process. A gradual accumulation of “fetal rights” has corresponded to a degradation of pregnant women’s rights, as well as a rather sweeping cultural and legal emphasis on individual behavior. Dubow writes, “It is in this sense, then, that the phenomenon of ‘fetal rights’ can be understood as a referendum on the weakened liberalism of the late twentieth century” (p. 152). [End Page 476]
Chapter 5 is intriguing; here, Dubow chronicles the Religious Right’s emphasis on two issues presumed to advance a “prolife” agenda: fetal pain and abortion-induced breast cancer. The Right has frequently misconstrued science for its own interests, and sometimes these ideas have trickled into the legal sphere. Dubow’s chapter does not “debunk” but rather situates such claims in social context, particularly women’s changing roles.
The final chapter offers a concise discussion of fetal meanings that have remained fairly consistent across the decades. These ideas are connected to transnational concerns (e.g., funding for reproductive health services in developing countries), just as they were at the turn of the nineteenth century. And they are deeply interwoven with ideas about race and class, most provocatively ongoing fears among the white middle and upper classes about “race suicide”—currently embodied in anti-immigration fervor.
Dubow’s argument is sometimes redundant in relationship to earlier scholarship in this field, and there...