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August 23, 2005

Luc Boltanski

Excerpt from "The Fetus and the Image War" by Luc Boltanski (published in Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, pages 78–9), trans. Sarah Clift

In 1965, the photograph of an eighteen-week-old fetus enclosed in the amniotic sac inside the womb was published on the cover of Life magazine. Taken by Swedish phtotgrapher Lennart Nilssom, this photograph is a milestone, and not only in the sense that it was the product of a technological innovation. It also marks access to the order of representation for a being who, up until then, had evaded this order. As such, the photo prefigures the progressive entry, some years later, of the fetus into a social order, which had ignored it up until then, acting as if it didn't exist.
How is it then that the fetus made its entry into society? By virtue of a series of technical, political, and symbolic operations which imparted a weight and a presence to this practically absent being that it had never known up until then, and through which it was endowed with new qualities.
The work of qualification of the fetus—that conferred presence on it—was, above all, the result of innovations which made it accessible to the senses. With the development of medical imagery and particularly of ultrasound, one can see the fetus in the womb, follow its evolution, know its sex well before its birth and, in certain cases, repair anomalies that it might be carrying. One can also hear the beating of the heart (and record it). As well, the development of cognitive psychology gives it capacities for communication, capacities, which until then had not been recognized as such. The parents are encouraged to touch it through the abdominal wall, in a way to familiarize themselves with it and, particularly in the case of the father, to allow him to get to know it. The fetus has become "a someone."
However, it is not only in becoming accessible to the senses that the fetus has entered into society in the course of the last thirty years. Its recently acquired social presence is also the result of its being placed at the center of two social conflicts or primary importance, the first revolving around the conditions of its destruction; the second around the conditions of its fabrication. In the course of these conflicts, it acquired a new weight with regard to practices, to techniques, to discourse, and perhaps above all, to juridical decisions. In these conflicts—which continue up to our time—the question of the representation of the fetus has occupied a central place.
The first conflict was provoked by the decriminalization and then the legalization of abortion in principle [sic] western countries. The opponents to such measures made extensive use of the photography of the fetus in order to support the position according to which, to abort is to kill an unborn infant. They either used photos—those of Nilsson or others—in order to celebrate the fetus insofar as it represents human life in gestation, in the womb, or they used photos of dead fetuses after abortion, often brandished at anti-abortion demonstrations, in order to dramatize their protest. Since from very early on, the dispute centered on the question of knowing whether the fetus was a "person" or not, the morphological similarity between the fetus and the infant that would have come into the world if the fetus had survived was used to prove that the fetus was indeed a person. Relying on the politics of human rights, they also made the demand that the life of this contested person be the object of protection on the part of the State.
To counter these arguments and to reduce the emotional effects that such photos could provoke, university academics with affiliation to pro-choice movements (sociologists, philosophers, jurists, historians of science, members of women's studies departments, etc.) undertook to decode the rhetoric of the opponents of abortion and to deconstruct the images that the latter utilized. This endeavor led them to attempt to divest the fetus of the presence and the status that it had recently acquired. Academics who engaged in this undertaking made frequent use of conceptual instruments borrowed either from the practice of deconstruction in the literary or philisophical arena, or from the new sociology of sciences. They took as their primary target the realism that the users of these photos claimed as their authority and, in so doing, adopted a constructivist position. They sought to demonstrate that, far from being "real," these images were artifacts and as a consequence were the instruments of an ideological propaganda, either because they decontextualized the fetus in isolating it from the womb (that is to say from the mother, whose presence was excluded from the images) or because these photos were the object of a technological coding (using electronic microscopes and techniques of digital imagery). What is more, it was argued that using artificial techniques in order to show that which is normally hidden, in fact amounted to producing an artifact.
Thus, the deconstruction of the images of the fetus triggered a deconstruction of the fetus itself. In using elements connected to the history of women and to the history of the sciences, these researchers thus insisted on the "historical character" of the fetus. Far from constituting a "natural being," eternal in its naturalness, or a "creature of God," as affirmed, among the opponents of abortion, who claimed religion as their authority, the fetus was, according to these pro-choice advocates, "in fact" only "a product of history."

More: A small index of (more or less) related textual excerpts...

"Luc Boltanski"
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Referenced in this post:

Amazon: ICONOCLASH: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art—Bruno Latour (Editor), Peter Weibel (Editor)
Iconoduel: Never shake thy gory locks at me (a compendium)