Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America
by Sara Dubow
Oxford, 320 pages, $29.95
Imagine seeing a fetus in a jar. Many Americans have recently, thanks (or no thanks) to George W. Bush’s book Decision Points, which includes a description of his seeing such a thing as a teenager while driving his mother to the hospital after she miscarried in their home. The story exploded in news and Internet outlets as something too absurd for a memoir, or at least something a mother should never have shown her son. Some have labeled it a political stunt. Whatever one calls it, the widespread public reaction makes one thing clear: Even as we reach the thirty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the issue of the fetus in America remains highly charged and unresolved.
Which is why it’s refreshing, in theory at least, to see the publication of Williams College history professor Sara Dubow’s new book Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America. Certainly we could use a serious look at how the fetus has been viewed and treated in America. Perhaps Dubow would explain how this has become one of the most divisive issues in the country and thus help us grow nearer to resolution. Or so I hoped.
There certainly are a lot of questions that remain unanswered on the subject, even after four decades of legalized abortion. How, for instance, did women view and treat their miscarried fetuses in the past? Did they bury them, like people, or discard them, like waste? What do women do now, and which option do women find more helpful? Does a fetus feel pain during an abortion, and, if so, should the mother be informed or the fetus anesthetized? How have the new technologies of prenatal screening affected how we view fetuses, and does our treatment of disabled fetuses affect how we view and treat the disabled among us? These are questions that most people, on both sides of the issue, will admit are difficult and thoughtworthy.
Sara Dubow deserves credit for writing this book because it shows she recognizes the importance of the issue. As Jennifer Miller, the head of Bioethics International, told me about a recent Princeton conference on dialogue about abortion, “there’s alienation on both sides,” and “people need to be acknowledged, to bond, to soothe wounds.” “It takes longer to dialogue,” Miller said, but to dialogue is better than to take the easy road of each side ignoring the other and perpetuating division. The country would benefit from more public dialogue on the issue, not less, and Dubow’s book is, no doubt, a contribution to that dialogue.
But while Dubow purports to write a history of the fetus in modern America, she misses one very important—perhaps, in fact, the most important—point, one that takes into account the way women like me view the fetus, the way George W. Bush viewed a fetus when he saw it in a jar, and the way countless women view the fetus when they see it on a sonogram: as a human life. As it turns out, instead of wanting to tell the history of American views of the fetus, Dubow has another goal entirely: Her book, she says, “historicizes the public fetus,” connecting its history and meanings more “with social values and political circumstances than with biology or theology.”
What does she mean by “the public fetus”? It’s a worthy question because Dubow isn’t talking about real fetuses or human lives. She treats the fetus only as an occasion for a dry intellectual exercise; it is something to consider as an immaterial social construct, a subject simply to analyze, impervious to the stirring, emotional realities of seeing a fetus on a sonogram. With these blinders on, she argues that the debates about abortion in America aren’t really about fetuses at all: They’re social and political power struggles. In Dubow’s narrow view, the fetus is nothing but a tool that groups use to push their agendas.
Sharing its title with a 1944 essay by embryologist Dr. George Washington Corner, Ourselves Unborn has the slow, dreadful pace of a dissertation, perhaps because that’s how it appeared in its own fetal state while the author earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers. Like a dissertation, it’s filled with abundant historical details that clearly are the fruit of intense research—but that bear little fruit for the standard reader.
It’s interesting (although Dubow doesn’t explain the significance) that in 1871 the New York Times “ran a series of lurid articles about abortion” that inspired a reader, whose letter the Times printed, to write to the editor to praise the paper’s “high valuation of fetal life” and mourn the “thousands of human beings [being] murdered before they have seen the light of the world.” Similarly interesting, in light of the fact that Americans have hotly debated the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research in recent years, is that as early as the 1880s scientists such as Franklin Mall were conducting tests on embryos, and, as anthropologist Lynn Morgan has noted, “tens of thousands of dead human embryos, fetuses, and infants were collected by hospitals and universities for research purposes. The remains and tiny bodies were collected by the scores, retrieved from miscarriage, induced abortion, surgery, and autopsy. They were shipped across state lines and national borders, dissected, dismembered, eviscerated, and sliced into sections for scientific research.”
Remarkably interesting facts. But how do they bear on the national debate? Even among the books on a women’s studies department shelf—a place this book will likely call home—this one doesn’t measure up. Dubow’s thesis—that the defense of the fetus is only for social and political means and never out of genuine care for human life—is so vague and weakly defended that it almost takes an embryologist’s microscope to find it. Maybe Dubow was nervous about this controversial issue and so held back her point of view. Or perhaps she wrote her book for an audience she expected would read between the lines, having come to the book sharing assumptions (her own) that would, presumably, help fill in the gaps. Either way, she abstains from seriously engaging the subject.
And that’s a shame. There’s much room in the literature on this topic for a serious writer who wants to grapple directly with the moral status of the fetus. When Dubow steps back to “historicize” the fetus, what she really means is to relativize its moral status. The argument buried in Ourselves Unborn is that fetuses have been viewed in numerous ways throughout America’s history and this multitude of angles suggests no single way to view them. Because fetuses have been treated both as persons and not as persons, for Dubow the question of fetal personhood is a nonissue. But, of course, it is an issue—a difficult one that the author chooses to avoid.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in Dubow’s historicization project is that she ultimately discounts scientific advancement as the source that most informs a true public understanding of the fetus. She mentions a few milestones in scientific and public understanding, such as Linnart Nilsson’s famous image of a fetus in utero—an image that Life magazine featured on its cover in 1965 as an “unprecedented photographic feat.” But she bypasses an acknowledgment that developments in science point in only one direction—that of greater certainty. Science, unlike politics or social conflict, has the benefit of offering greater clarity to our debates through progress in knowledge.
But Dubow offers circles of historical, social, and political power struggles that trap our thinking in a loop. Instead of looking in detail at the impact of groundbreaking scientific discoveries such as 4-D ultrasound images and prenatal screening, Dubow lays out a historical record that puts the scientific understandings of the 1850s and those of the 1950s on equal footing and invests both with no more value than the disparate claims of political parties or religious groups.
Dubow comments, for instance, on scientists and medical professionals as far back as the 1850s—professionals such as Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, a leader in the American Medical Association’s investigation of abortion, who declared that the fetus is “from the very outset a living and distinct being.” “Under Storer’s leadership,” Dubow writes, “the ‘antiabortion crusade’ accomplished the twin goals of elevating physicians’ prestige while simultaneously circumscribing women’s options.” But as a century passes, and scientific advancement gives us a much better view into fetal development than in Storer’s day, Dubow looks the other way. She spends dozens of pages discussing labor issues faced by women who sought work in factories, and dozens more parsing transcripts of the 1970s manslaughter case of abortionist Dr. Kenneth Edelin, whom she describes as a victim of racism and injustice.
As Dubow documents the “fetal meanings”—her favorite term—of the past half century, the scientific understandings of the fetus she includes at the beginning of her book disappear. By the end of the book she has dropped all scientific references to the fetus, and, in the chapter titled “Debating Fetal Pain,” for instance, it’s a glaring absence. As Dubow cites public claims of fetal pain that range from media (the film The Silent Scream) to politics (“a woman’s right to know” legislation), she entirely avoids scientific claims—the very sort that would be the most reliable on the subject.
In the end we find that Dubow’s history of the fetus is not one at all. Rather, it is her own selective history. For a book that comes out as we approach the thirty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade—a ruling that changed Americans’ view of the fetus more than any single event in American history— Ourselves Unborn gives hardly a mention to the Supreme Court case. And the Human Life Review—the journal started by J.P. McFadden two years after Roe v. Wade for the purpose of documenting an intellectual defense of the fetus—appears nowhere on Dubow’s abundant and eclectic list of references.
The kind of analysis missing from Dubow’s book is suggested in a contribution by Richard John Neuhaus to the Human Life Review’s new collection of essays, The Debate Since Roe. Fr. Neuhaus explains the need of supporters of partial-birth abortion to avoid reality—scientific and moral—in adamant defense of their cause: “On partial-birth abortion, they even demand that infanticide (which surely this is) must be permitted. And why? Not because they are in love with infanticide; just out of simple human feeling, we must allow . . . that many of them find this as repugnant as do most feeling, thinking human beings. But they hold on to this because they dare not give an inch; because they believe that if even an inch is lost, their whole house of cards will come tumbling down.”
Dubow’s book reflects the way too many women’s studies scholars have narrowed their focus—emphasizing a woman’s access to abortion above all else. They’ve lost sight of what motivated the feminist movement in the first place: the marshalling of facts and reasoned logic to improve the condition of a vulnerable group. Yes, a repressive, patriarchal society in which the status of women necessarily depended on men was a house of cards that needed to tumble down. Now, however, these women appear to have built their own house of cards, in which the status of the fetus depends not on the fetus but on them. And they don’t want to give an inch.
It’s as if a book on the history of domestic violence against women considered its subject only as a phenomenon to be analyzed as to how domestic violence may have affected political and social issues such as voting or property rights—and didn’t dare ask whether the status of women is important on its own, or whether and how women have a primary right to have their lives protected.
So, sadly, in Dubow’s study we’re left with one more book on the shelf—one more brick in the wall that blocks out any serious consideration of the moral status of the fetus. What makes this book remarkable, however, is how disingenuously it considers its own thesis. Dubow’s version of the many “fetal meanings” explored over the course of America’s history ends up suppressing any serious look into what the fetus in reality might be.
In Ourselves Unborn Dubow adds little to the public discourse on this divisive issue, because she shuts out the possibility that these social battles might be born of a genuine humanitarian concern—that fetuses are exactly what her title suggests: ourselves, unborn.
Mary Rose Somarriba is managing editor of First Things.