A "Pro-Choicer's" Explicit No to Life

March 1995By Laura Garcia

Laura Garcia teaches philosophy at Rutgers.

Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn.  Edited by Barbara Duden. Harvard University Press. 126 pages. $17.95.

We seem to have entered a new era with the publication of Barbara Duden's book by Harvard University Press. Formerly, the Catholic Church was accused of suppressing science, most famously in the case of Galileo. But with the recent technological advances which enable us to view the developing baby in the womb, the secular community is frantically striving to suppress science, while scorn is heaped upon the Church for its insistence upon the scientific facts about human development. Barbara Duden is a historian in the Department of Social Sciences at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and her book is one of the clearest examples of this amazing reversal.

This book appears to be motivated in large part by Duden's recent encounters with three images of a developing baby: The Life magazine photo layout (August 1990 issue) showing the first moments and days of the human embryo's developing life, a fetus-shaped balloon that floated near the Washington Monument during a prolife rally in 1990, and some ultrasound photographs of their babies presented to Duden in 1988 by two of her friends. The truly astonishing thesis of the book is that because the fetus in the womb has at last become visible to the public in its earliest hours through the technology of the electron microscope, the public has come to worship and idolize the fetus in complete disregard for the mother. By giving the fetus a body, it seems, we have disembodied women. Duden asks, "What set of circumstances made the skinning of woman acceptable and inspired public concern for what happens in her innards?"

In her attempts to address this question, the author's methodological standards are not particularly impressive. She says she is going to let us "listen in on a conversation among well-read and passionately interested friends." So much for any claim to an objective treatment of the topic. The book is clearly written in order to try to undo, if possible, the psychological impact of the kinds of photos and images we now encounter from time to time, even in the secular press, so that women will not be made to feel remorse over terminating the lives of their babies before birth.

Duden's strategy in the book is two-fold: to challenge the scientific claims themselves, and to make us ashamed for seeking out such knowledge of the fetus in the first place. With respect to the claims of science, Duden expends enormous effort to cast doubt on the validity of electron microscopy and to drive a wedge between the "value-free" scientific data and our interpretation of these data. Unfortunately for her, the so-called interpretations are made by the scientists themselves, not simply by clerics or philosophers, since the scientists are the ones who call the embryo a human life from the moment of conception and who insist that they are looking at a beginning human, not simply at a glob of chemicals, by using their techniques. Duden, meanwhile, denies that "life" is a scientific term and sees it instead as a word fabricated to serve the prolife agenda. What she thinks science actually discovers is that "the nuclear material of the zygote is homologous to the mother's nuclear material, but it has a characteristic that is not replicated in any nucleus of the mother's body." Of course what this means in ordinary language is that the zygote is a different human being from the mother, already at the first moment of fertilization. Duden attacks the captions in Life's photo display as especially egregious in adding a value-dimension to the bare facts, though the passages she cites would strike most people as fairly clinical. Where she sees only "a planet-like bubble floating above the landscape," the caption tells us "the blastocyst…bounces along the uterine wall…feeling its way for a comfortable home to spend the next 39 weeks." Similarly, where Duden sees "an enormous brownish, crackled lump composed of overlapping lobes against a strange background," the caption explains that we are viewing the embryo at eight days old, and facilitating the embryo's landing on the uterine wall are leg-like structures composed of sugar molecules. The photographer, Lennart Nilsson, comments on this photograph in the German version of Life (Stem): "It's a human being, one hundred percent!" Duden worries that "we are told what to see" and that "our readiness to see on command has grown tremendously" in recent years. The problem, though, is that the images in Life are so obvious in their import, and this spells trouble for the pro-abortion agenda.

What begins as a shadow of doubt about microscope images and even ultrasound pictures comes into full flower later in the book as Duden refers to developing human babies in increasingly hostile, dismissive, and sarcastic terms. The fetus is "a vague clump," an "empty phantom," 'the thing," "ectoplasm," and finally "the laboratory's bastard." Duden even complains that the ecological movement has created an atmosphere of concern for life in general, so that "increasingly, the fetus -- or even the cockroach -- threatened by extinction, is used…to make a much more general statement about endangered life." All of this in a book in which the stated purpose was to "strive to keep the argument outside the large shadow cast by the fiery rhetoric of the abortion debate"!

Since there are obvious difficulties with denying the genetic facts regarding when human life begins, Duden takes a shot at undermining our confidence in science generally. She is concerned that these facts about fetal life have been invented out of whole cloth, and so she pauses to ask, "What if the facts are only modern phantoms?" This truly desperate strategy reminds me of a line by Groucho Marx, in response to someone who challenged him with the words, "But I saw it with my own eyes!" Groucho replied, "So who are you going to believe -- me or your own eyes?" Duden clearly hopes we will believe her when she insists that the photos in Life magazine don't tell us anything at all.

Duden's thesis is that women have been harmed by and are threatened by the advances in our understanding of the humanity of the fetus. Of the woman who agrees to an ultrasound scan, Duden says, "She takes a further step -- a giant leap -- toward becoming a participant in her own skinning, in the dissolution of the historical frontier between inside and outside." Even explaining the facts of fetal development to a young Hispanic woman in Harlem, and discussing the prenatal tests available to her, become in Duden's eyes an act of "actually skinning this woman, a process that not only violated her bodily integrity, but also sought to deflower her spirit." The truly amazing conclusion to this line of thought is that techniques that enable us to visualize the fetus are akin to pornography. "It is remarkable," says Duden, "that those who strongly oppose the public display of genitalia pay for ads that shamelessly portray what lies behind them." For Duden, the fetus is obscene.

The closing chapter argues that the fetus has become an idol of our time, a sacred object or icon rivaled only by the familiar photos of planet earth promoted by the ecological movement. It is astounding that this book was published by Harvard University Press. What facts could Duden's thesis possibly explain? Apparently we idolize the unborn children so much that we destroy 1.6 million of them every year in the U.S., and millions more worldwide. The truth is, as Duden knows very well, that it is the unborn child who has been disembodied and rendered invisible, while the plight of pregnant women is put before us constantly. Duden says her research has "encouraged me to take a stand that I would also wish for my friends: to ruefully smile at this phantom [the fetus]. Then one can speak an unconditional NO to life, recovering one's own autonomous aliveness." The only way to be alive is to say no to life. A more succinct summary of what C.S. Lewis calls the philosophy of Hell can hardly be imagined.

DOSSIER: Abortion

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