Fetal Positions

Ourselves Unborn
A History of the Fetus in Modern America
Sara Dubow
Oxford University Press, $29.95, 320 pp.

Americans living in the mid-nineteenth century knew almost nothing about the human fetus, at least in a biological sense. Prior to a mother’s perception of fetal movement, which occurs in the fourth or fifth month of gestation, the very existence of a pregnancy could not be definitively established. Despite the discovery of the mammalian egg in 1827 and the development of cell theory in the 1830s, many ordinary Americans continued to regard the fetus prior to “quickening” as inert matter and evinced remarkably tolerant attitudes toward first-trimester abortion. As early as the 1840s, however, activist physicians were pressuring the various state legislatures to criminalize abortion. By the 1880s, the decade that saw the first significant breakthrough in American embryology, abortion had been made a felony in nearly every U.S. jurisdiction. Why were popularly elected legislators willing to protect an entity that many of their constituents could not yet visualize? Sara Dubow, the author of Ourselves Unborn, explains it by invoking period anxieties about changing gender roles and a rapidly industrializing society, anxieties that many in the overwhelmingly male electorate can be presumed to have shared. The status of the fetus, she argues, has “more to do with social values and political circumstances than with biology or theology.”

Whatever one thinks of this argument, Americans in subsequent decades did learn more about fetal biology, as Dubow explains in...

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About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.