Saturday, 29 October 2011

Fetus fetish

Last year I gave a talk on abortion law reform at a local students' association.  There were about twenty people in the audience, if I recall correctly, and when we got to discussion time there were clearly two who were anti-abortion.  

Putting aside the fact that both of these people were young men, what really struck me was how strongly one of them in particular identified with fetuses.  I've come across the fetal personhood argument before, not least in five and a bit years of Catholic schooling.  But this experience, with this not unpleasant young man who clearly sincerely believed what he was saying, provided a real light-bulb moment for me; it's not just that some who are anti-abortion believe in fetal personhood, it's that some seem to sub-consciously identify as fetuses.

Now I haven't put that quite correctly, so forgive me if we have to work through this a bit in comments until I work out precisely what I mean.  I'm definitely interested in discussing 

What I observed was how fervently this young man seemed to feel personally the perspective he imagined a fetus might have.  I've seen others do it too, now that I have started looking for it.  He actually said something along the lines of "If I was a fetus I wouldn't want to be aborted."  

Not only does that seem to me an incredibly odd projection, but what does it say that someone thinks they can imagine what it would be like to be a fetus, and speaks from that perspective, yet cannot seem to put themselves into the shoes of a person, an actual person, much more like them than a fetus, who is pregnant and doesn't want to be.  

I still remember, vividly, the moment when I thought I was pregnant and in a situation where that would have been disastrous.  It was almost half my life ago.  I doubt I'll ever forget the sensation of the walls of the room closing in around me.  I felt trapped.  I just could not re-imagine my life with all the changes that a pregnancy, let alone a child, would bring, and so it really seemed as if it was an end to my life, as I could not see beyond that moment to even what I would do in five minutes' time.  The relief when the test result was negative made me realise I was holding my breath, in more ways than one.

And I recall the happy positive pregnancy tests too, tinged with nerves and all sorts of other emotions.  The sorrow of miscarriage, the fear of labour, the apprehension of becoming a parent, the shock of contractions, the weirdness of having operations that resulted in babies. 

All of these are human emotions that people feel.  For myself I've worked out that I could not have foretold exactly how I would feel in these situations, and I don't feel like I had proper empathy for these experiences until I'd had them myself.  But they weren't completely alien, far from it.  I'd felt shadows of all of this before in other contexts, at other times, and I have since too. 

Once upon a time, before I was a person, I was a fetus.  I've not yet had an unwanted pregnancy.  Yet I still find it far far far easier to attempt to put myself in the place of an unwillingly pregnant person than try to channel a fetus.  


This is part of a week of Pro-Choice Postings hosted here at The Hand Mirror starting on Friday 28th October 2011.  For an index of all the posts, being updated as they go up, please check the Pro-Choice Postings index.  And if you'd like to submit a post for cross-posting, guest posting or linking to please email 


Annanonymous said...

Very well put. Identifying with a foetus over a woman seems like a willful empathy failure.

ZenTiger said...

Some people also say "if I was a baby, I wouldn't ... "

and clearly, very very young babies probably are not quite up to the worldly awareness of older people.

I've seen several "Greens" empathising with trees too, for that matter.

I don't think this can be reduced to the "empathising with unthinking aliens vs empathising with real people" that seems to be the crux of your argument.

I also don't agree that the young man couldn't apparently put himself in the shoes of the potential mother. Perhaps that is more a product of your thinking that where supporting one thing means they are against another. I think most people realise every situation is complex and affects many people. People argue by jumping up into the clouds of principles and then down into the grounds of reality and complexity, and are just processing at different speeds.

Perhaps it is more like a communication style, like some people 'hear' what you say, whilst others will 'see' what you are getting at.

I think you are in danger of creating a strawman argument.

I.M Fletcher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
I.M Fletcher said...

Hmmm, well I think the point must be made that a fetus is human. When they test the cells they can see that it's not anything else. It's not vegetable or some other animal; it's a human being a one stage of development. The cell structures don't change from fetus to adult - they are set; all they do is grow and mature.

Perhaps some people can identify with that (like the young man). Perhaps he has seen the now infamous videos of "the silent scream", where the fetus (of a particular age, yes), fights to move away from the suction tube that will end it's life. It instinctively knows the danger and 'screams'.

The exposure to danger and effort to move away is something we can all identify with.

Climbing Trees said...

Interesting question, with lots of answers. Just two ideas: (1) given the misogyny driving a lot of the anti movement (i.e. it's also anti contraception, anti female sexual expression, anti feminism, etc.), I think the boys can't resist pretending they, as fetuses, are potential victims of these fallen/falling women. (2) Although according to Catholic doctrine the fetus (heck, even the fertilised egg) is already infected with original sin, it's still something akin to 'man before the fall'. Again, pure, innocent victim of sin-laden woman. Rather god-like in its purity and innocence in fact. So the boys are imagining themselves little gods, gods who are the victims of women.

ZenTiger said...

I think the boys can't resist pretending they, as fetuses, are potential victims of these fallen/falling women.

I think you have an anti-boy fetish.

So the boys are imagining themselves little gods, gods who are the victims of women.

On a post about imagining what others think, you certainly continue the tradition.

Anonymous said...

@ IM Fletcher

At some stage, between conception and birth, an embreyo becomes a fetus, and then a fetus becomes a baby. So on the one hand, a cluster of cells moments out from conceptions isn't a person yet - just like an acorn isn't an oak tree yet, even though they have the same DNA. On the other hand, a fetus at 36 weeks is a baby that hasn't been born yet.

- Elley

Hugh said...

There's a place to argue this ZenTiger, and this isn't it.

Please read the comment guidelines.

Trouble said...

The cell structures don't change from fetus to adult - they are set; all they do is grow and mature.

What bollocks. Maybe cells do the same things, but the organs don't. And the silent scream nonsense - creatures that young absolutely don't have an instinctive sense of danger. Someone who has taken care of an actual baby would know that. A third trimester preemie is lucky if it can suckle and breathe, let alone sense danger.

Meanwhile, fully grown women of reproductive age are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they want to be this being's host for nine months, which is the important part.

I.M Fletcher said...

@trouble - you obviously haven't seen the videos then, or you wouldn't say that. Do a google on Silent Scream and actually watch one.

@Anonymous - let's imagine a scenario. Let's say that Maori decided to replace the tree on One Tree Hill with an Oak tree.

They planted an acorn which was then blessed by the Maori elders; the media made a big show out of it all and it was a huge event.

Weeks later, scans showed the acorn was progressing well. Before it could even poke it's head about ground, however, a Maori protester dug it out and smashed the acorn with his boot on the concrete.

Has he killed the tree? I would say yes - even though it hadn't fully developed, it would have grown into a huge tree if left unmolested

I don't see any difference with an embryo or fetus. Does it really matter where along it's timeline it is killed? A week, a month, a month after being born, to me it is still ending a unique life - a son or daughter that will never be the same as any other child.

I.M Fletcher said...

ps, I still find it really quite strange that many people who are Liberal/Green are in favour of abortion. When it comes to the environment and ecology that are against human interference - eg, you can't build that there because it will disturb the wild ducks that nest there or whatever. The rule seems to be no human interference.

Yet when it comes to the ecology of the human body why is it OK to impose human interference on a natural growth process that, if left alone, will produce a perfectly healthy human son or daughter?

The reason is convenience (in the US, 98% of the reason for having an abortion is because of convenience*) - which is still weird because it is more inconvenient to move a construction site because of a nest of wild ducks.

I.M Fletcher said...

Darn link didnt work -

katy said...

"Yet when it comes to the ecology of the human body why is it OK to impose human interference on a natural growth process that, if left alone, will produce a perfectly healthy human son or daughter?"

This is a pretty romantic view, I am wondering if you have been pregnant or close to someone who has? I know in my case that without "human interference" it is not clear my baby would be that healthy or even survive and this goes for lots of people around me also.

Climbing Trees said...

@I.M Fletcher, I suggest you hop on over and have a read of THM's "Abortion and Morality" page (there's a link to it at the top of THM's home page) where all these rather tedious and not-very useful acorn/oak fertilised egg/fetus/person analogies have been very well debated. We've all heard this so many times before, no one can be bothered engaging. So actually READ through the discussion there (it's long) and join in. Maybe someone will respond but as Hugh pointed out, this isn't the place for THAT discussion.

I.M Fletcher said...

@Climbing Trees, so it's all been "debated before" and you find it all rather tedious, yet babies are still being killed. Congratulations.

I didn't expect anyone here to agree with me anyway :)
To me though, it's just very clear and straightforward what abortion really is.

@katy, I am talking about negative interference. One that does harm instead of good (obviously for me, killing a child is never "good").

Climbing Trees said...

@I.M. Fletcher
1.How come y'all insist we all have to tell it like it is ["Abortion is murder" -- in quote marks, fyi] but not tell it like it is for a ban on abortion for those who need/want an abortion [i.e. "state-enforced pregnancy and childbirth"]. Not to mention how you're going to get the state to protect fertilised eggs. Shudder!
2. If you're going to get all miffed and 'poor widdle me' that lots of people here don't agree with you, why post comments on a feminist blog that is explicitly pro-choice?

Anonymous said...

@IM Fletcher

I think there is a distinction between potential person, and person. Conception isn't a magical moment when a person is created: it's a magical moment when a potential person is created. That said, birth isn't the magical moment when a person is created either. I'd agree that aborting a 35 week old fetus is morally abhorent. I'm not quite sure where I'd draw the line, the development of a fetus into a person is a gradual process. It's not "non-person" one day "person" the next. Survival outside the womb is a key aspect, but not the only aspect. At 20 weeks, a fetus can hear sounds, has kidneys and is urinating, has lungs and is breathing in amniotic fluid, has vocal chords but can't yet use them, and a female fetus has overies and her own eggs are developing. Personally, I feel a bit morally squeemish about the idea of aborting a fetus at that stage of deveolopment.

But here's the thing - our laws aren't just about what you or I feel morally squeemish about. I'm a vegetarian, I think that eating meat is plain out morally wrong, and factory farming is inexusable. Should eating meat be illegal? Maybe one day. And maybe one day when contraception is 100% effective and women are empowered to proactively control our own reproduction, abortion won't be necessary. Until then, we have to agree on a compromise that recognises that a fetus becomes a baby, while also recognising that asking a woman to bear a child she doesn't want (for whatever reason) is totally inconsistent with viewing that woman as an autonomous adult in control of her body and her life. The obvious compromise is to allow abortions in the early stage of pregnancy, but not after a certain stage of fetal development.