“Shut that whole thing down”: On Re-evaluating Fetal Autonomy and the Rhetoric of “Pro-life”

ESSAY by Christine McKeon

volvo baby

In one of her episodic voiceovers, the eminently wise Carrie Bradshaw once proclaimed that there are times when a woman should not shut the fuck up. I am not usually in the habit of telling fellow women to follow the advice doled out on Sex and the City because I think it’s dangerous for women to live their lives constantly worrying about their interactions with men. But this is a sound piece of love advice – a woman should never risk her emotional well-being for the sake of appearing agreeable to her partner. As it turns out, I also think this is a great piece of political advice for American women as they consider the current debates affecting their reproductive well-being. For many years now, our country has been locked in the debate between “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” As it has become clearer in recent years, this is hardly just a debate about abortion, but one that comes to bear on many facets of the female reproductive experience; many anti-abortion politicians also tend to debate against access to affordable gynecological exams, birth control and pre-natal care. These “pro-life” politicians are steadfastly committed to silencing women – both in the doctor’s office and in the political arena. In order to do this, some states with strong anti-abortion advocates have passed legislation that restricts women’s access to health clinics providing these services, often by manipulating or ignoring medical facts and statistics. The “pro-life” movement has collectively become our abusive boyfriend. The feminist in me is tired of shutting up to let him talk.

I was recently with a very dear—albeit very obstinate—friend who insisted that I was not a feminist because I did not hate men or burn my bras. Remembering Carrie’s advice, I protested. Loudly and persistently. The fact that I should be so incensed that a man presumed to tell me how I could or could not identify myself proved my point nicely, I think.  For him, as it used to be for me, “feminist” was a term that only radical woman used—no need for a run-of-the-mill woman like me to go to such extremes. I also used to think of feminism as something that had already happened—an era that belonged in history books—and certainly not as something that I needed to incorporate into my own identity.

Even as an undergraduate at Barnard—an institution that promotes the strength, intelligence and influence of stereotype-breaking women everywhere—I resisted identifying as a “feminist.” Because I already considered myself to be a strong, independent woman, it seemed like a superfluous marker of identity. It was not until my very last day at Barnard that I realized I might have been a little too cavalier in my dismissal of feminism (that other dirty f-word). My class had invited Hilary Clinton to speak at our convocation, and it was in listening to her that I was reminded of the fact that most places weren’t like Barnard. She talked about her experiences working with women from around the world and she told us, If you want to know how stable, healthy, and democratic a country is, look at its women; look at its girls.” It seemed as though Clinton was talking about other women in other countries—and she probably was. But four years later, these remarks are more resonant with the status of women in our own country than even Clinton may have intended.

I began writing this article in the midst of a government shutdown, when our country’s democracy proved to be more unstable than we might care to admit. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have also has been grappling with issues centering on women’s reproductive health, including those of abortion and contraception, or that these issues have played a key role in the debate on healthcare reform. One of the biggest arguments against the Affordable Healthcare Act comes from anti-abortion advocates who complain that it requires most employers to cover birth control pills and emergency contraception. Rush Limbaugh caused quite a stir last year when he insisted that Georgetown law student and birth control advocate, Sandra Fluke, was a “prostitute” who wanted to be paid by the government for having sex. “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception,” he accused.

In the last few years, misogynistic discourses like this one have been alarmingly persistent. It is true that Limbaugh is a conservative extremist, but it has recently been the case that remarks like his – remarks that should remain on the fringe of political discourse – have been picked up and perpetuated by politicians in policy-making settings where they simply do not belong. When it comes to women’s reproductive health, especially, it is increasingly the case that women are being silenced and that policy-makers are relying too heavily on discourses that see women as incapable of making decisions that affect only their own bodies. What is most troubling to me is that these discourses rely on antiquated understandings of women’s bodies and rights. Incredible advances in medical technology should arm us with the tools to make more – not less – informed decisions about women’s reproductive rights, and yet many policy-makers operate under preconceptions that are nothing other than anti-modern. It is time to speak up against this backwards-looking political rhetoric and to insist that women have voices worth hearing.

Last summer, Senator Todd Akin made headlines during an interview when he gave his stance on abortion rights for rape victims:

Transcript: “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment—that the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the child.” (New York Times)

In the weeks that followed this interview, people latched on to Akin’s coinage of  “legitimate rape,” rightfully arguing that this term ignored the terrible ordeals of many different kinds of rape victims. I do not wish to undermine the danger of insinuations such as the one Akin makes here, or the reality of the rape culture that they contribute to. But what was alarming to me was the way that Akin accounted for the female body during the process of reproduction, because it revealed a gross misunderstanding that affects the way all women’s bodies are perceived.

How, for instance, does Akin imagine the female body here and what, exactly is it responsible for? I think it’s telling that he splutteringly refers to reproduction as “that whole thing,” as if the process and the body that executes it are somehow incomprehensible. In this account, the uterus becomes a site of otherness—a mystifying organ that can eject any emission it deems unfit for procreation; a woman’s uterus can halt the process of conception under the circumstances of rape should it choose to do so. And if maybe that didn’t work—if this particular woman proves to have a dysfunctional body—only then is it time to consider other options. But in this scenario, Akin dismisses the option of abortion, which he sees as a way to punish the fetus. He prefers punishment for the rapist which, to be clear, I do not disagree with. But in his preoccupation with doling out punishments, Akin fails to remember the woman who is at the center of it all. He does not acknowledge that withholding her right to abortion—that forcing this forcible pregnancy to term – may be a punishment in its own right. He effectively erases the post-conception role of the woman and assigns agency only to her uterus.

It may surprise some people to know that Akin’s views are, in fact, grounded in published texts on obstetrics and the female body.  In 1655, Justice Michael Dalton penned a handbook for his colleagues in which he discussed the difficulty in prosecuting rape. Dalton explained, “If a woman at the time of the supposed Rape do conceive with child by the Ravisher, this is no Rape, for a woman cannot conceive with child, except she doe consent.”[1] Operating under the early modern scientific belief that a woman’s sexual pleasure was necessary for reproduction, Dalton exercises the same brand of logic that Akin does more than 350 years later to draw the same conclusion: women don’t get pregnant by accident. At least Dalton and his contemporaries were kind enough to throw a woman’s sexual pleasure into the equation.

My point here is to illustrate the disturbing parallels between a seventeenth century and a twenty-first century argument. If scientific knowledge has advanced to the point where we can understand the process of reproduction right down to the cellular level, then why is it that our political discourse has not advanced alongside it? We owe Dalton’s position, in large part, to the Renaissance’s limited anatomical knowledge of all human bodies. But, the female body—and specifically her reproductive and sexual body—posed a particular problem for the earliest physicians who were dumbfounded by sexual organs and a process of reproduction that they could not see.

befuddled politicians

Akin has no such excuse. The similarities between his comments and the Dalton text suggest a refusal to fully advance our understanding of how a woman participates in the role of reproduction, despite a massive acquisition of empirical knowledge between the two periods. Akin’s comments are, indeed, an extreme example of a misguided sexual education, but he is by no means alone in his stance on women’s reproductive health, or in his misunderstanding of the female sexual body. In 1995, Republican Representative Henry Aldridge proclaimed, “The facts show that people who are raped—who are truly raped—the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant.” Aldridge, who was also a practicing periodontist at the time, later defended his comments: “To get pregnant, it takes a little cooperation. And there ain’t much cooperation in a rape.” For now, I’ll ignore Aldridge’s charming assertion that rape is a mostly uncooperative endeavor to point out that he also imagines a woman’s body as capable of the same kind of magic/science that Akin does. Needless to say, I might hire Aldridge to attend to my gums, but definitely not my vagina (nor my grammar, for that matter). In 1988, Representative Stephen Freind was quoted as saying, “Rape, obviously, is a traumatic experience. When that traumatic experience is undergone, a woman secretes a certain secretion, which has a tendency to kill sperm.” Freind’s imagining of the female body is in direct opposition to Akin and Aldridge’s; he believes that women are actually able to whip up some sort of sperm-killing potion when faced with the traumatic event of rape. So whether a woman is secreting a special secretion, or halting the flow of juices, all together, anti-abortion advocates are in agreement: the vagina is its own bag of tricks that doesn’t need medicine to interfere with its reproductive capabilities. Pack your suitcases, birth control advocates! Women who really don’t want to get pregnant already have everything they need.

The political debates on abortion and contraception, specifically, are relatively young ones, but I think it is important to consider the ways in which these debates are situated in a much longer history of imagining the female body. Evidence from sixteenth and seventeenth century medical texts and visual culture suggests that our political discourses of women’s bodies are actually rooted in antiquated and pre-technological understandings of female anatomy.  For all of the scientific and technological advances that have been made since that period—ultrasounds, mammograms, pre-natal monitors—we still refuse to see women’s bodies as active contributors to the process of reproduction.

Of course, “pro-life” advocates deploy anti-abortion rhetoric even when discussing cases that do not involve rape. I think it is telling, though, that “the rape question” is where anti-abortionists falter most often in explaining their position. If a woman is raped, she does not opt into the “contract” of reproduction by consenting to sex. By legally forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy inflicted by her rapist to term, we take away her choice to consent for a second time. There are many ways in which “choice” gets complicated in the rape scenario, which is probably why we find so many anti-abortion advocates trying to explain away the predicament with pseudo-science (and I think I’m being rather generous with the “pseudo” here).

When we think about what it means to be “pro-choice,” we have to think about the different registers in which “choice” operates. This is no longer simply a question of  “To abort, or not to abort?”—we need to think about the choices that we ask women to make in their daily sexual and reproductive lives. It’s problematic that anti-abortion advocates are often also the loudest opponents of birth control access. Under this imagined healthcare system, a woman’s only hope of controlling her reproductive life is to abstain from sex all together. If abstinence-only education in this country has taught us anything, it is that it is simply not a sustainable model. Because a woman’s body is culturally inscribed with the capabilities and responsibilities of reproduction, her body is scrutinized and surveilled under this model; the burden of reproduction lies entirely on her decision to have or not to have sex, where men get to enjoy consequence-free sex.

And so, my biggest complaint about the rhetoric of “pro-choice” versus “pro-life” is that it pits women against fetuses and affords the same rights to freedom in agential and non-agential beings. Moreover, it suggests that women and fetuses are in opposition to one another during the course of reproduction—it doesn’t acknowledge that the relationship between a woman and the fetus growing inside of her may be more complicated than this. When you take away a woman’s right to contraception and abortion access, you create the opposition between the woman and the fetus by proclaiming that she should not be afforded the right to decide if she wishes to carry a fetus to term, whether before or after the fact of conception. As the earlier examples of contemporary political discourse have shown, you also assert that she must trust that her uterus knows better than she does. I think what is at stake here is that we risk a woman’s autonomy when we imply that her uterus is the only site from whence she is permitted to exercise agency.

I want now to take the opportunity to briefly consider the history of fetal imagery from the early modern period to the twentieth century to consider the ways in which we imagine “fetal autonomy” in the present day. Some examples from early seventeenth century visual culture portray women as “other”—as somehow separate from the process of reproduction and as not in control of their bodies. And yet, as medical knowledge continued to advance into the late eighteenth century, we begin to find some imagery that accounts for the female form more thoroughly than we tend to even today – a fact that speaks to how unevolved the current rhetoric in the debate on women’s reproductive health is.  My hope is that by acknowledging the extent to which women have been historically excluded from discourses on reproduction, we can arrive at some alternative ways for talking about abortion that account for a woman’s active role in conception and birth and that reassert her right be an active participant in the debate.  Specifically, I’d like for us to imagine ways to get beyond the rhetoric of “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” which I think dangerously conflates the agential capacities of women and fetuses.

Early modern medical texts are rife with images that depict fetuses as autonomous and as always already fully formed. Seventeenth century medical practitioners did not understand fetal development as we understand it today. Still swayed by the much earlier work of Aristotle and Galen, most medical professionals believed that the woman provided the “matter” for the fetus, and that the man provided the “form” that shaped and gave life to that matter.[2]  The fetus grew in size, but was never imagined as “developing” from an embryo; it is only ever portrayed as a little person (who, consequently, is also always male). This insistence on the person-like portrayal of the fetus is likely how later practitioners arrived at the concept of “fetal autonomy,” which suggests that a fetus should be afforded the same rights as a human being who lives, breathes, and walks about in the world. In fact, many early visual accounts of reproduction portrayed the fetus as more autonomous than the female body that carried it. Consider this image from Jacob Rüff’s The Expert Midwife (1637):

ruff fetus

Behold the little homunculus, with his arms stretched up to heaven, confined only by the uterine walls that imprison him. He has a full head of hair, arms, legs and a penis. He is animated – maybe even a little defiant. The only thing that distinguishes this little figure from his larger adult counterparts is the umbilical cord that tethers him to the uterus, which is depicted here as existing apart from the female body.

An even earlier depiction (c. 1487) of an in utero fetus by Leonardo Da Vinci gives us a surprisingly accurate rendering of the fetal form, but similarly insists upon the inactive role of the female body:

davinci fetus

Here, the uterus is bisected only to reveal the fetus inside, almost as a locket that houses a sentimental token. Despite some attempts to render the biological anatomy of the uterus, Da Vinci is clearly more concerned with the accurate depiction of the fetus than of the woman’s body that nourishes it. There are numerous images from the period depict women’s bodies in this way – as detached, as other, as a means to an end. An investigation of the female body was often centered on the biological function of reproduction, so that the fetus was always of central concern.

Many images from this period similarly portray the fetus as being housed in a free-floating uterus that is depicted as being separate from the female form. In Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality, Karen Newman accounts much more thoroughly for the evolution of fetal imagery from the early modern period to present day than I can hope to here, but some distillations of her argument are productive for thinking about how this historicity contributes to an understanding of contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric, which also insists on the separation of the fetus from the female form. She argues that these early anatomical drawings are important not only for what they depict, but equally for what they omit. Newman notes:

Feminist commentators have repeatedly observed that such fetal imagery effaces women’s reproductive bodies. In feminist accounts, the image of a solitary fetus and the erasure of the woman’s body demonstrate a certain set of social relations in which women and their bodies are subject to men.[3]

These images reveal an impulse to understand the process of reproduction without accounting for the active role of the female body. As it was for Aristotle (and as it seems to be for Akin, to be sure), the uterus is nothing more than a vessel for the already full-formed little being, disconnected from the rest of the female body.

And yet, as medical science advanced in the latter part of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, attempts were made to incorporate the female body into an understanding of the reproductive process. As we move towards the Enlightenment, a period fundamentally concerned with anatomy and the ways that bodies worked, we find attempts to portray the fetus as being more connected to the holistic form of the female body:

birthing image

Here we find a portrayal of the birthing process itself; the cervix is dilated, and the woman is bearing down. Obviously, this is an idealized vision of birth. The woman’s face does not betray the fact that she must be in pain. With her flowing hair and her downward glance, she is depicted as a virgin might be, though she clearly is not one. This image (c. 1673) is still primarily concerned with the fetus – it is, after all, depicted at the center of the female body. And yet, there is an attempt here to consider the ways in which the woman participates in and is necessary to reproduction.

As scientific knowledge advanced and models of reproduction started to move beyond the belief that women were inactive participants in conception, visual culture began to account more fully for a woman’s role in reproduction. This image from 1793 depicts the pregnant female form as its primary focus and also shows a more evolved understanding of fetal development, as we know it today:

primacy of female body

This might seem like an unremarkable image, but I think it is significant that it insists on the primacy of the female body in its naturally whole pregnant state. This artist chose not to portray a dissected female form, as many earlier artists do, but rather chose to depict the pregnant woman as wholly autonomous. She is not depicted as a subject of scientific inquiry, but as a subject in and of herself. There is still an interest in the fetus, but it is no longer the sole focus of the image. Furthermore, the fetus in this image is not depicted as an already formed human subject, but rather as in the process of development. The image insists on the subjecthood of the woman, but not on that of the fetus.

What these later images offer us is an evolving understanding of reproduction and a momentum towards the notion of female autonomy. Why is it, then, that much of the current anti-abortion discourse favors fetal autonomy as early seventeenth century discourse did? What happened to the forward momentum of seeing female bodies as more active contributors to the reproductive process? Even as incredible medical advancements towards understanding female anatomy and biological processes were under way, I want to propose that technology was actually responsible for halting this movement towards visualizing the whole female body.

It may seem counterintuitive to argue that scientific advancement contributes to our antiquated imaginings of the female body, but with the advent of imaging technology, medicine was once again in the position to visualize the fetus as a form separate from the body. Even the microscope had huge implications for considering the relationship between the woman and the fetus: in being able to actually see the ovum and the embryo, medical researchers were now in the position to imagine not only the fetal form, but also the embryonic form, without having to account for the female body. As imaging technology advanced to where physicians could see inside the living female body with the help of the ultrasound, we were finally offered what we’d arguably been looking for all along: the fetal heartbeat – a seemingly indisputable sign of autonomous human life. The ultrasound provides us with a blurry rendering of the fetal form, but offers no anatomical details of the uterus. This is to say that the ultrasound looks more closely related to the early artistic renderings of the fetus that erased the female body than to the later images that attempted to account for its centrality to the process of reproduction.

The anti-abortion movement relies on medical images that depict the fetus as separate from – and as potentially viable outside of – the female body in order to reinforce the antiquated notion of fetal autonomy. Just as early seventeenth practitioners did, anti-abortion advocates once again see the fetus as being capable of subjecthood. No longer “already fully formed,” but now always developing towards subjecthood, the fetus becomes a site of potentiality: potentially a person, potentially viable outside the mother’s womb, potentially autonomous. In contrast to seventeenth century medical practitioners, who were trying to understand the anatomical process of reproduction, however, twenty-first century anti-abortion advocates deploy these kinds of images for political gain. By insisting upon images that suggest fetal autonomy, these “pro-life” advocates argue that we should favor the fetus’s potential over a woman’s actual subjecthood. In attempting to construct this narrative of fetal autonomy, these kinds of images are dangerously misleading.

In 1965, Life magazine published a photo essay by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson entitled, “Drama of Life Before Birth.” Throughout this essay, the reader is provided with photographs of fetuses in various stages of development. As the cover of the magazine suggests, we are to imagine these fetuses as developing towards personhood:

life fetus cover

As with early seventeenth century images, the photo essay insists on the primacy of the fetus, offering us numerous depictions of fetal development, but none that even suggest the presence of female body. Later “pro-life” advocates would take up these images and ones like them to insist that fetuses already look like real-life human babies. By using these kinds of images, “pro-life” advocates could argue that abortion was “baby murder.” What anti-abortion advocates usually fail to mention is that these photographs – which seem to depict potentially viable fetuses capable of eventually exercising autonomy – are actually obtained through spontaneous or surgical abortion.[4] In recognizing this fact, it becomes unmistakably clear that fetal autonomy – the notion that the fetus can exist independently of the life-giving body of the mother – is truly an impossibility. In order to see these fetuses as autonomous, they have to be untimely ripped from their mother’s wombs by a process that denies them the very life that anti-abortion advocates want us to imagine they are capable of. The “pro-life” movement relies on imagery obtained by a procedure they claim to abhor in order to sell the fictitious narrative of “fetal autonomy.” Sorry, America: you’ve been duped.

This fiction of fetal autonomy has been deployed in modern political discourse at the expense of female autonomy. For this reason, we must get beyond the rhetoric of “pro-life” versus “pro-choice,” which says that a person taking a stance in the debate must choose either the side of the fetus or of the woman. As I hope I’ve shown in this article, this is a false equivalence. It is misleading to suggest that we should give the same consideration to fetuses that we do to women, because fetuses are not “subjects” in the way that women are subjects. Instead, I propose we more strongly consider the emerging rhetoric of “pro-choice” versus “anti-choice,” which more accurately locates the binary of the debate. This rhetorical shift insists upon female autonomy; it acknowledges that a woman can exercise agency from a place other than her uterus. Because anti-abortionists are so wedded to the fabricated notion of fetal autonomy and to their “pro-life” rhetoric, I realize this proposed rhetorical shift must necessarily come from those who consider themselves to be pro-choice.  But my hope is that by insisting that anti-abortion and all the things that come with it – anti-birth control, anti-Planned Parenthood, anti-affordable and accessible healthcare – is at its very core anti-choice, we can begin to account more fully for all kinds of female voices.

As Akin and other contemporary anti-choice politicians have proven, it is essential to carefully consider the ways in which we talk about this issue. Sadly, it should not be assumed that the politicians we elect to pass legislation have advanced their understanding of reproduction and of women’s bodies entirely beyond earlier medical beliefs that saw women as side-line participants. The historical processes by which women have been empowered have not always been as swift as we might have liked, which is why we must never consider ourselves as being outside of history. Centuries from now, I hope that people will find the proto-science of fetal autonomy and its accompanying “pro-life” rhetoric to be as backwards as the notion of a flat earth. But I also hope they will see the twenty-first century as a transitional period when that antiquated rhetoric fell out of favor. It’s time to recenter the debate on a woman’s choice, where it belongs.

Christine McKeon (MAPH’12) was a Mentor in MAPHCentral during the 2012-2013 academic year. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Boston College, where she is pursuing coursework in Early Modern English.


[1] Mendelson, Sara Heller, and Patricia Crawford. Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, 47.

[2] The concept of the human “egg” started to gain traction at the end of the seventeenth century, but for many years, medical practitioners did not know how to fit this evidence into a scientific model of reproduction. This was partially because technology prevented scientists from observing reproduction at the cellular level. The human egg would not be observed under a microscope until 1827. For the purposes of this article, it is important to note that the seventeenth century is a pivotal and transitional period for the study of reproduction, but that for the majority of the period, Aristotlean and Galenic traditions still held the most sway. For more reading on the history of the egg and sperm, see: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1439-0531.2012.02105.x/full

[3] Newman, Karen. Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996, 8.

[4] Ibid., 11.