Pregnant Bodies as Public Spaces

  • Rebecca Kukla


Female bodies, and especially pregnant and newly maternal bodies, leak, drip, squirt, expand, contract, crave, divide, sag, dilate, and expel. It is no surprise that historically such bodies have seemed to have dubious, hard-to-fix, permeable boundaries. To the extent that we take the integrity and boundaries of the body as integrally intertwined with the integrity and the boundaries of the self—and we have done so, at least throughout the history of Western culture and probably beyond—these dubious boundaries have been a source of various species of intellectual and visceral anxiety.1 The maternal body has long been seen as posing a troubling counterpoint to the mythical well-bounded, fully unified, seamless masculine body.2


Pregnant Woman Public Space Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Maternal Body Generic Fetus 
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  1. 1.
    Susan Bordo, in her classic book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) has done an excellent and oft-cited job of examining this type of concern with the integrity and boundaries of bodies and selves. I do not much care, here, if this concern with the vagaries of the boundaries of bodies in general, and female reproductive bodies in general, is a universal dimension of “human nature” or whether it is culturally inculcated but very widespread.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Helen King, Hippocrates’ Women: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (New York: Routledge, 1998), 28.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Ibid., 28–29; Miriam Yalom, A History of the Breast (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 206.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Cited in Linda Blum, At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    A growing number of feminist scholars have demonstrated and discussed this new publicity of the uterus, and have argued that such publicity has helped to grant imaginative and political personhood to fetuses. See for instance Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, trans. Lee Hoinacki (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1993), 81; Janelle Taylor, “The Public Fetus and the Family Car: From Abortion Politics to a Volvo Advertisement,” Public Culture 4 (1992); Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, “Fetal Images,” Feminist Studies 13 (1987);Google Scholar
  6. and Deborah Lupton, “Risk and the Ontology of Pregnant Embodiment,” in Risk and Sociocultural Theory, ed. Lupton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. See Karen Newman, Fetal Positions (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996) for an argument that this publicity is not new at all.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    See among many other examples Petchesky “Fetal Images”; Taylor “Public Fetus”; Duden, Disembodying Women; Rayna Rapp, Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America (New York: Routledge, 1999);Google Scholar
  9. and Barbara Katz Rothman, The Tentative Pregnancy: Prenatal Diagnosis and the Future of Motherhood (New York: Penguin, 1987).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Harrison et al., “Management of the Fetus with a Correctable Congenital Defect,” Journal of the American Medical Association 246 (1981), 774. Quoted at Petchesky “Fetal Images,” 276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 14.
    Lisa Mitchell, Babys First Picture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 26.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Lisa M. Mitchell and Eugenia Georges, “Cross-Cultural Cyborgs: Greek and Canadian Women’s Discourses on Fetal Ultrasound,” Feminist Studies 23 (1997), 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 18.
    Lorna Weir, “Pregnancy Ultrasound in Maternal Discourse,” in Vital Signs: Feminist Reconfigurations of the Bio/Logical Body, ed. M. Shildrick (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1998), 84, 92.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    Eugenia Georges and Lisa M. Mitchell, “Baby Talk: The Rhetorical Production of Maternal and Fetal Selves,” in Body Talk: Rhetoric, Technology, Reproduction, ed. Lay, Gurak, Gravon, and Myntti (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  15. 29.
    H. Murkoff, S. Hathaway, and A. Eisenberg, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, 2nd and 3rd eds. (New York: Workman Publishing, 1996 and 2001), (hereafter cited as What to Expect).Google Scholar
  16. 33.
    Amy Mullin, Reconceiving Pregnancy and Childcare: Ethics, Experience, and Reproductive Labor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), fo. 65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 35.
    Harold Speert, Obstetric and Gynecologic Milestones Illustrated (New York: Parthenon, 1996), 265. I here relegate to this footnote the disturbing fact that once maternal mortality had been more or less conquered, Speert suggests, attention turned exclusively to fetal excellence, as opposed, for example, to improving maternal health. Apparently, failure to die is the digital measure of the medical success of the pregnancy for the mother.Google Scholar
  18. 36.
    See in particular Lupton, “Risk”; and Helen Michie, “Confinements: The Domestic in the Discourses of Upper-Middle Class Pregnancy,” in Making Worlds: Gender, Metaphor, Materiality, ed. Susan Hardy Aiken et al. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1998). See chapter 7 in this volume.Google Scholar
  19. 39.
    The extremist recommendations that pregnant women face concerning their ingestions of all sorts, but especially alcohol, and the way that these “recommendations” are conveyed, enforced, and internalized, is an important and complicated topic in its own right which deserves separate discussion. This exploration would take me too far off track here, even though it is in clear ways closely relevant to the thesis and discussion of this chapter. See Elizabeth Armstrong, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  20. 44.
    Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway, What to Expect When You’re Expecting Pregnancy Organizer (New York: Workman Publishing, 1995).Google Scholar
  21. 45.
    The classic article on the phenomenology of pregnant embodiment is Iris Youngs “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 9 (1984), 45–62. While her analysis is a useful touchstone, she seems to underplay the totalizing and concretely challenging nature of the experience of pregnancy.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 46.
    See for example Susan Feldman, “From Occupied Bodies to Pregnant Persons,” in Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian Social Philosophy, ed. Jane Kneller and Sidney Axinn (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998).Google Scholar

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© Sarah Hardy and Caroline Wiedmer 2005

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  • Rebecca Kukla

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