Carol Sanger Replies to Rachel Rebouche: Images, Imagination and Ideology

In focusing on Chapter 6, You Had Body, You Died, Rachel Rebouche goes directly to the emotional complexities that derive from the corporality of prenatal life.  The title comes from a poem about abortion called The Mother by Gwendolyn Brooks.  Its last two lines read: Oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said? /You were born, you had body, you died.   Chapter 6 considers how seeing a fetal body—or even an image suggesting a body—influences how the entity is imagined and how it is responded to as a dead body.

Of course, what you think you see—the size of an embryo on a monitor, for example—may not accurately capture the entity itself. Rebouche, just back from a photo exhibit in Stockholm, points out that the iconic photos by Lennart Nilsson of Life in the Womb were, with one exception, miscarried or aborted fetal bodies, even if they looked magical and alive.  Yet historically, the benefits of ultrasound were not ideological in nature, but rather, they were aimed at improving public health by detecting early fetal abnormalities for the purpose of a possible abortion.  Thus as Rebouche puts it, “’normalizing abortion’” has always occurred in the area of prenatal diagnosis.

I want to develop Rebouche’s point in the context of the Zika virus.  Here imaging the brain is crucial in evaluating the calcification of the fetal brain so that a diagnosis of microcephaly can be made.  Yet an accurate reading cannot be taken until relatively late in a pregnancy.  In a 2015 case study, ultrasounds taken at 14 and 20 weeks of gestation showed normal fetal growth and anatomy. Only at 29 weeks did the first signs of fetal anomalies show up, and it took the 32 week ultrasound to finally confirm “a head circumference below the second percentile for gestation (microcephaly) [and] numerous calcifications in various parts of the brain.”  The problem is that 17 states have now banned abortions after 20 weeks, most often on the supposition that that is the marker for fetal pain.  This means that women with wanted pregnancies might have to roll the dice before 20 weeks, if they know they would terminate the pregnancy if faced with a diagnosis of microcephaly.  As I’ve said before, the age of Zika is not the time – it is never the time – to play politics with women’s health or their rights.   Perhaps we see the issue more clearly when we are dealing with pregnancies made unwanted on account of environmental threats, rather than in individual cases where it is easy to tag women as careless, selfish, and cruel.

Finally, I turn to Rebouche’s excellent point regarding my call to end abortion secrecy when that call is applied to pregnant teenagers.  She rightfully notes that bypass hearings are all about minors talking, and look how well that turned out! I myself make the case in About Abortion that minors’ testimony at bypass hearings sometimes resembles a compelled form of gossip about oneself.  I certainly agree that testimony is a very different thing from the form of chosen disclosure I have in mind with regard to “abortion talk.”  But Rebouche’s insistence on recognizing minors’ agency is key to fixing the bypass process, as it now exists in nearly 40 states.  As William Saletan made clear in Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, restrictions on teenage abortion are the easiest thing for even a pro-choice politician to sign on to.  (Bill Clinton, anyone?)  Thus making parental involvement statutes better (in contrast to repealing them; aside from lowering the applicable age to 16 instead of 18) may be where the action has to be just now.  Yet Rebouche imagines a coalition of “clinicians, lawyers, court officials, and young women” who might “share stories, find solidarity, and agitate for change.”  I am with her. It would be great to hear from coalition members to learn when and where and how this sort of respectful and productive talk is underway.


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