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March 27, 2011

Page: 16/36

Home > 2011 Issues > March 27, 2011


The touching story of abortion politics

By Dr Vaidehi Nathan

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America Sara Dubow, Oxford University Press, Pp 308 (HB), $ 29.95

IS the child in the womb a separate entity from the mother? Does the fetus have ‘individual’ rights? These are some of the ethical questions that have been asked, debated and disagreed upon in America for decades now. Reading Sara Dubow’s book Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America one wonders what the dispute and discussion is all about, especially in the Indian context where motherhood is celebrated, nay deified.

Sara Dubow analyses how fetus has been in public imagination and campaign for years now, with anti-abortionists, health care campaigners, civil rights activists, religionists and politicians making use of the imagery of the unborn. In October 2002, the United States Department of Health and Human Services added human embryos to the list of "human subjects" whose welfare must be taken into account. Hence, the term child now includes the life from the moment of conception. In April 2004, Congress signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, "making the death of a pregnant woman and her zygote, embryo, or fetus in the execution of a federal crime punishable as two separate criminal violations."

The book offers fresh insights into the various meanings ascribed to fetus, meanings that have been "constructed and deployed in modern America." Says the author "The fetus is sometimes a window into anxieties about race, gender, and motherhood; sometimes a projection of our beliefs about the relative authority of religion, science, or personal experience; and sometimes a proxy for seemingly unrelated issues like immigration, the Cold War, feminism, or liberalism."

Some of these issues have come to fore in relation to court cases. For instance, the American courts ruled that a pregnant Mexican woman cannot be deported till she delivered because her unborn child had been conceived in America and was therefore a citizen. In another case, a girl born with deformities, after she was delivered by her mother premature, who had fallen off the bus, sued the government transport system for compensation. In yet another instance, a doctor was charged with ‘killing’ after he performed abortion on a girl who was nearly 20 weeks pregnant. Involved in all these are fetal rights. These are issues related indirectly to immigration, individual right and abortion rights of women.

The book, not in strict chronological order, presents the history of the fetus dialogue. The last word has not been said on the subject. But the book offers a new look at an issue that is yet to be picked up with this gusto outside the United States. In fact, the attitude to the issue is largely shaped by religious, cultural, political and economic condition of the societies one lives in. As a first book that looks at the entire spectrum of the fetus topic, Sara Dubow’s work is interesting. She is Associate Professor of History at Williams College. The book has lots of notes and references, if any reader is interested in further research on the subject.

(The spelling fetus has been used instead of foetus, to maintain harmony with the book)

(Oxford University Press, Inc. 198, Madison Avenue, New York, 10016)

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