Monday, January 22, 2007

Blog for Choice Day: the fetishization of the fetus

(The uterine parasite in its early stages of development.)

((BTW, it's not a very good idea to do a Google Image search for "fetus".))

Few aspects of our political culture are as strange as the discourse surrounding the ethical status of fetuses. The surreality comes not only from the right wing anti-abortion zealots, but from the mainstream, from the media, even from many Democrats.

Why are so many Americans so deeply obsessed with the fetus? Why do people insist on talking about fetuses as if they were babies, or even "children"? There's something deeply creepy about this. Even in late stages of development, a fetus barely resembles anything human in anything but genetics. Yet many, many people work themselves into such a fervor about the value of fetal life that they seem to care far more about it than about actual full-fledged persons with actual lives and actual hopes and dreams.

There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon: either people actually do care this deeply about fetuses, or this concern is a mask for something else. I'm inclined to think that it's mostly the latter, specifically, a mask for anxiety about female sexuality. For this reason, some feminists refuse even to discuss the concept of concern for a fetus, since (they would claim) it's never genuine enough to bother addressing at face value.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. I think the fetus has become a strange sort of totem symbol, a locus of meaning that appeals to some degree to the sentiments even of many pro-choice people. I don't think the use of the ubiquitous mangled fetus pictures is only a cynical ploy to trick people into restricting female sexuality. It is that to at least some degree, but the ploy wouldn't work if there weren't any power to the fetus-as-symbol.

So where does this power come from?

Obviously, late-stage fetuses look like babies, and many people get all gooey-eyed when they look at a baby. (Not everyone, though--I have no great affection for babies, myself. I love kids, but not babies. A baby, to me, is like a far more annoying, far less cute and far less intelligent small dog. And I don't like small dogs.) I'm not sure this is enough to explain the power of the fetus-image, though, because even images of actual babies don't seem to motivate the same fervent concern. Pictures of dead or starving or mutilated babies (and children) come out of warzones and famine-stricken regions all the time, yet this doesn't seem to upset people in nearly the same way.

What's interesting and odd to me about moral concern for the fetus is that it takes the form of concern for innocent human life in general and magnifies its intensity almost in direct proportion to the absurdity of extending this concern to such a basically inhuman object. A fetus has none of the properties that we care about in actual human beings: it is not and cannot be involved in anything, it has no full-fledged emotions, no love, no friendship, no thought, and not even much in the way of perception. It is essentially nothing but a stomach and a heart. (The obsession with the fetus' "beating heart" is a particularly creepy sub-genre of fetus fetishization.)

I wonder if it's not precisely the inhumanity of fetuses that makes them such a perfect symbol: they lack most of the things that make us who we are, but they somehow seem thereby to be purer and more perfect versions of us. The poor man who's spiritually richer than Croesus, or the blind man who sees the higher truth we all miss, are classic mythological archetypes; examples of such legends exist in nearly all human cultures. The fetus may be our modern, abstracted, perfected version of this archetype: a bare human life, lacking everything but its "sacred" humanity itself, yet somehow higher and better than the rest of us.

Even taken at face value, the fetishization of the fetus is an absurd mess. It's sad that we can't seem to move past all this to a place where we could talk about the value of human life, reproductive choice and sexual freedom without constantly having to battle against the most ridiculous kind of superstition.


Geaghan said...

For once I find a small opening to express mild disagreement with Ellis one point. I seem to be one of those progressives who believe, as Ellis notes, that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" (and in that order). I say this because abortion is a terrible form of birth control that should always be a last resort. It's an intrusive and not inexpensive medical procedure that is (obviously) far more likely to cause physical and mental trauma to the affected woman than any other form of birth control. It should be a long-term goal of this society to provide effective sex education and contraception so that abortion is only utilized for therapeutic reasons (as in preserving the health of the mother). Still, it should go without saying that abortion should remain legal, and all the proposed new restrictions should be bitterly resisted.

Meanwhile, of course, I agree with Ellis that no shame or condemnation should result from a woman's choice to have an abortion--it's a totally private medical issue, like having (to use Ellis' example) an appendectomy or root canal. But I think the incidence of abortions could be greatly reduced, as a matter of enlightened public health, if our society provided more support for both men and women in terms of (to repeat) sex education and contraception.

Other than that, Ellis' comments are right on.

ellis said...

Greetings, geaghan!

I think you are misinterpreting me slightly, and that we don't really disagree very substantially.

Obviously abortion is not a good form of birth control, and it would be better if other forms of birth control were used more often and more effectively. Obviously, it's unfortunate when someone has to go through surgery of any kind, since going through surgery sucks.

I worry, though, about the tendency, even amongst abortion-rights advocates, to accentuate the unfortunate when talking about abortion. People don't appreciate how much this plays into the hands of the anti-abortion movement. (People forget, also, the extent to which the Clinton quote was a form of capitulation--an act of triangulation, not of political courage.)

Abortion is no more and no less unfortunate in itself than root canal surgery. Dithering on about how difficult a decision it is and how emotionally traumatizing it can be to women serves only to make the decision worse and more traumatic, and to empower the anti-abortion movement, which is itself one of the primary sources of the trauma that abortion can cause.

As I said, it would be nice if abortion could be made very rare through improvements in birth control and whatnot. But since we're not anywhere near that point yet, what's the point in expressing a wish for abortion to be more rare?

As things in fact stand, I'm actually inclined to say that abortions should be more common, since lots of women who really ought to be getting them--because they're too young or too poor or in poor health or in some other situation that ought to preclude childrearing--aren't getting them, either because they oppose abortion or because they can't get access to clinics.