New book examines the social lives of the unborn

2 August 2013

Social Worlds Unborn
Professor Deborah Lupton: "This growing idea of the unborn as already infant is having an effect on limiting women's choices when it comes to abortion policy in some countries."

A new book by University of Sydney sociologist Professor Deborah Lupton explores the way in which the unborn - human embryos and foetuses - have become increasingly public and at times potently political symbols in modern societies.

The Social Worlds of the Unborn (Palgrave Pivot) is the first book-length sociological work that covers the full range of contexts in which embryos and foetuses are created, monitored, tested, disposed of and visualised.

From prospective parents creating social media profiles for their babies in utero, to the anti-abortion movement's use of 3/4D obstetric ultrasound imagery, the book considers the implications of new technology over the past 50 years for popular thinking about the origins of human life.

"We're just surrounded now by this wealth of visual material of the unborn, and increasingly they are described and represented as if they are already infants," says Professor Lupton.

"It wasn't so long ago that the average person had very little knowledge about what embryos and foetuses looked like at each stage of development."

Since the 1970s, rapid changes in reproductive imagery and technology have been accompanied by the expansion of industries in embryonic stem cell research, surrogacy and in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Such developments raise intriguing questions about not only the way life is created, but also how we visualise the unborn, according to Professor Lupton.

"For example, on YouTube you see more and more pregnancy videos: just ordinary people posting videos of their experience of pregnancy and their bodies changing over time," she says.

"On a sadder note, there's an interesting phenomenon of memorialisation websites and videos on YouTube, where people who have suffered a pregnancy loss make a video about their experience. That's a public representation of a very private experience, which in past times would have been kept silent."

But as the once mysterious figure of the unborn has become more familiar, accompanying issues have arisen over the agency and choice of pregnant women themselves, Professor Lupton argues.

"Now, the pregnant woman's knowledge of the unborn is overtaken by the medicalised knowledge that's produced by ultrasounds and prenatal testing, as well as popular images on websites of the unborn," says Professor Lupton.

"This growing idea of the unborn as already infant is having an effect on limiting women's choices when it comes to abortion policy in some countries."

Pointing to such organisations as the Personhood Movement in the United States, which is challenging abortion legislation and provision in some American states, Professor Lupton says she is concerned that pregnant women's rights are being superseded by highly politicised imagery of the unborn.

"Because the unborn are seen increasingly as autonomous citizens in their own right that need protecting from the actions that pregnant women might take, there's a lot of emphasis now on the unborn over the rights and needs of the woman in whose body they are growing," she says.

Professor Deborah Lupton is a Senior Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. A specialist on the social and cultural aspects of medicine and public health, her most recent books include Fat (2013), Risk (2013) and Medicine as Culture (2012).

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