As a brief submitted by over four hundred professional historians in the Webster case argued, never before in history has the fetus been the primary focus of campaigns to restrict abortion. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century in the United States, such campaigns had a variety of purposes all unrelated to "protecting fetal life": the protection of women from harmful substances; the consolidation of physicians’ authority over obstetrical practice; the "enforcement of sharply differentiated concepts of [gender roles]"; and the expression of "ethnocentric fears about the relative birthrates of immigrants [especially Catholics] and Yankee Protestants" (see Chapter 2). Only in the last two decades, "when traditional justifications for restricting access to abortion became culturally anachronistic or constitutionally impermissible," has "the moral value attached to the fetus [become] a central issue in American culture and law."9
Fetal images now permeate the American cultural landscape and saturate abortion discourse as never before. The actual fetus pales next to the symbolic one, which, in current U. S. reproductive politics, has come to represent a whole series of losses—from sexual innocence to "good" mothers to American imperial might. As this symbolic fetus becomes a more familiar public presence—in civil courts (as tort claimant), in hospitals (as patient), and in the media (as video star)—its "autonomy" from the
pregnant woman and her displacement from the center of the abortion story become cultural "facts" that feminists must counter.
Without ascribing moral valence to such images, we need nonetheless to understand the sources from which they obtain their magical power. In the past five years, it has become clear that the neoconservative state has played a role at least as central as that of the fundamentalist and Catholic churches (see Chapter 7) in promoting the "public fetus." Just as the abortion debate has in many ways been a managed crisis—a conscious strategy by right-wing conservatives to use the abortion issue to consolidate their own power and a popular base—so too have fetal images been wielded discursively by 1980s conservatives in the service of a larger agenda. The fetus plays a symbolic function in the formation of a right- wing constituency and identity. Antiabortion ideology presents an aura of religiosity more than an actual theology, separating the godly from the ungodly, the innocent from the damned. As such, it provides a neoconservative government with a banner for its claim to moral legitimacy and a new political language to legitimate its militarist policies. The fetus itself becomes the most potent symbol of helplessness demanding patriarchal protection. "Saving the fetus" and "saving America" go together, and they both require a strong male leader. Hence, the continued martyrdom of the fetus is as necessary to the patriarchal conservative state as is the menace of communist takeovers or hostage-takings in the Third World.
On the domestic side, fetal politics helps to justify the neoconservative state’s "reprivatization" campaign—its relentless efforts to dismantle the social welfare provisions of the previous two decades. The focus on the fetus constructs an adversarial relationship between pregnant women and their fetuses that extends implicitly to all mothers and children, but especially to those who are poor. The sinister idea of mothers who "kill their children" becomes a salient part of the background noise accompanying policies that discredit women’s right to make claims on behalf of their children and social programs that benefit poor mothers and children. Saving fetuses from their mothers distracts conveniently from society’s failure to feed, house, educate, employ, and provide health care to millions of children, much less to solve the problems of AIDS, drugs, and environmental devastation. Unlike poor women and children, the fetus requires little or no social care and few if any services, and it doesn’t have to go to school, get a job, or find shelter. Practically no other social policy could have won the Reagan and Bush administrations the semblance of "morality" at so little cost. Thus, fetal advocacy becomes a badge of identity signifying not only "moral," "Christian" values and defense of the (traditional, patriarchal) family, but also fiscal restraint and its corollary, toughmindedness against the poor.
In promoting fetal imagery—and thus, indirectly, the state’s uses of it—the media have played an increasingly important role since 1984.10 In particular, The Silent Scream, the "pro-life" propaganda film that purports to show an ultrasound record of a twelve-week-old fetus being aborted, marked a dramatic shift in the contest over abortion imagery. With formidable cunning, it translated the still and by now stale images of fetus as "baby" into real-time video, thereby (1) giving those images an immediate interface with the electronic media; (2) transforming antiabortion rhetoric from a mainly religious-mystical to a medical-technological mode; and (3) bringing the fetal image "to life." On network television the fetus rose to instant stardom in 1985, as The Silent Scream and its impresario, Dr. Bernard Nathanson—an ex-abortionist turned "pro-life" activist—were aired at least five times. In one documentary, a well-known ABC television narrator held up a fetus in a jar before ten million viewers, announcing, "This thing being aborted, this potential person, sure looks like a baby!"11
By now, the curled-up profile, with its enlarged head and finlike arms, suspended in its balloon of amniotic fluid, has become so familiar that not even most feminists question its authenticity (as opposed to its relevance). Yet this prototypical fetal image epitomizes the distortion inherent in all photographic images—their tendency to slice up reality into tiny bits wrenched out of history and social context. Nathanson claims to be presenting an abortion "from the vantage point of the victim [fetus]," but the fetus—if it has any vantage point—could not possibly experience itself as if dangling in space, without a woman’s uterus and body and bloodstream to support it. In this respect, every fetal image—including those projected on the display terminals of ultrasound machines—is an artificial construct, a fetish, representing the standpoint of neither an actual fetus nor a pregnant woman but an outside observer. As Barbara Katz Rothman puts it, "the fetus in utero has become a metaphor for ‘man’ in space, floating free, attached only by the umbilical cord to the spaceship," while the pregnant woman "has become empty space."12 Inside the futurizing spacesuit, however, lies a much older image. For the free-floating fetus merely extends to gestation the Hobbesian view of human beings as disconnected, solitary individuals, paradoxically helpless and autonomous at the same time. It is this abstract individualism, effacing the pregnant woman and the fetus’s dependence on her, that gives the fetal image its symbolic transparency, so that we can read in it our selves, our lost babies, our mythic past.
The intensified focus on the fetus in U. S. abortion and pregnancy politics also derives from the ideological formats of medical technology. Antiabortionists use the claims of neonatologists and advances in ultrasound imaging, prenatal diagnosis, in vitro fertilization, electronic fetal monitoring, and a range of heroic "fetal therapies" (in utero and ex utero) to construct the case for fetal patienthood, if not personhood. Indeed, the practice of visualizing the fetus in utero earlier and earlier in the pregnancy—its kicking, spitting, excretion, growth—seems to verify the reality of its "separateness." Meanwhile, the hegemony of obstetrical "management" over pregnancy and the subordination of pregnant women to technological imperatives are nourished by a fetocentric culture and a political climate of hostility to "woman’s choice." Infertile women and couples feel compelled to solve their problem through expensive and time-consuming treatments. Doctors and district attorneys feel justified to force women into caesarean sections and to prosecute them for behavior deemed "abusive" of fetal rights.13
One important aspect of these trends is the growing emphasis on fetal "viability." Ever since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced that the trimester framework in Roe v. Wade was "on a collision course with itself" because technology was hurtling the point of viability indefinitely backward, images of ever younger and tinier fetuses being "saved" and aborted fetuses being "born alive" have captured the imagination of the press, the courts, even television drama.14 Such images blur the boundary between fetus and baby; they reinforce the idea that the fetus’s identity as separate and autonomous from the mother (the "living separate child," as The Silent Scream calls it) exists from the start. The problem is not simply that the imagery constructs late abortions in a way that favors fetuses over pregnant women. Rather, it constructs all abortions in the shadow of late ones, and all fetuses in the aura of the "viability" myth.
A feminist challenge to fetocentrism has to assert that, while some fetuses may become at some point transplantable, no fetus is actually viable. Fetuses are biologically dependent on a pregnant woman and will most likely be physically and socially dependent on her after birth. This dependence provides the basis for both her moral obligation to regard the fetus with care and her moral right to decide whether to keep it (see Chapter 9). The technological capacity to transfer the fetus to some artificial life-support system has no bearing on the definition of rights and responsibilities that are inherently social and relational. But even within the accepted clinical definition, the focus on viability and late abortions is greatly exaggerated. Most authorities agree that extra-uterine techniques for sustaining fetuses of earlier than twenty-four weeks’ gestation (600 grams) will not be achieved in the near future, if ever.15 On the other hand, fewer than 1 percent of all abortions in the U. S. occur past the twentieth week, and of these the majority are young teenagers whose delays are the avoidable result of fear, denial, and poverty.16
Despite these realities, fetal images—in mass culture, medical technology, and public policy—create a context in which abortion as "woman’s choice" has become more fragile than at any time since its legalization in 1973. The power of such images helps to explain the much-vaunted "ambivalence" reported in public opinion surveys about abortion, where many of the same people who agree that abortion should remain legal or "is sometimes the best course in a bad situation" will also say abortion is "murdering a child."17 Indeed, given the disparity between what people say about abortion in surveys and what they actually do when they or their daughter, girlfriend, or wife faces an unwanted pregnancy, one wonders whether opinion surveys can tell us very much at all. Responses of blacks are less favorable to abortion than those of whites, yet black women have abortion rates three to five times higher than those of white women. Are they responding to the conditions of poverty, health care denial, and non-choice that surround their abortion decisions rather than the decision itself? Or to the reality that their babies are the ones dying from drugs, AIDS, and malnutrition? Younger people and those who have known someone who had an abortion or have had one themselves are more favorable to legality, but many of these same people oppose "social reasons" such as low income or wanting to work or finish school. Is abortion the target of their hostility, or rather poor women (who are disproportionately women of color), single mothers on welfare, and working mothers?
It may be that abortion, and within abortion the fetus, acts as a kind of empty signifier that condenses within it many different meanings at once. People’s social positions (gender, race, class, or age) may determine how they read fetal images. For poor women of color, these images may connote the loss of babies through poverty, miscarriage, or early death. For male conservatives, they may signify a decline in, or reassertion of, paternal authority. According to Kristin Luker, a disproportionate number of women in the ranks of the antiabortion movement are married with children, unemployed outside the home, and have experienced a history of miscarriage or child loss. For them, the fetus is that "little guy," those lost babies, the loss of social esteem for housewives in this society and perhaps of the heroic ideal of "unconditional, self-sacrificing nurturance."18 But the social and demographic realities of abortion suggest a more specific set of fears, having to do with who currently gets abortions and why.