The Disembodied Mother

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. In this week’s post Rachel Botha considers the visual representations of mothers in debates surrounding abortion.

The Disembodied Mother: the representation of motherhood in the visual
culture surrounding the abortion debate.

According to the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution of Ireland the right to life of the unborn is equal to the right to life of the mother. This legislation is ultimately transferred to the visual culture that surrounds the brewing debate of abortion in Ireland. In this piece I shall be honing in on the impact of visualising the foetus, and how it essentially disembodies the pregnant woman to exaggerate ‘life’- the life of the foetus as a separate entity to the mother.

Barbara Duden states that ‘the human foetus, as conceptualised today, is not a creature of God or a natural fact, but an engineered construct of modern society’, an awareness of the foetus that has been brought to light by the development of ultra-sounds and other medical imaging technologies.1


The Life Institute, ‘Broken Promises Cost Lives’, 2013. Reproduced courtesy of Irish Election Literature

In the visual example by Life Institute the image of an ultrasound of the foetus is savagely torn horizontally, and articulates and authenticates a certain brutality that is associated with the pro-life’s view of the termination of pregnancy (Fig.1). This campaign piece reinforces the ‘life’ of the foetus through the prominent use of the colour red; it is apparent in the text box which reads ‘Broken Promises Cost Lives’ and highlights the buzzwords below ‘Legislate for Abortion’ and ‘Too Late’. The theme of life is vividly displayed, a life that has only been made possible through medical imaging technology. The borrowing of the word ‘life’ from a scientific perspective, pertains to development and growth but also excites a strong emotional reaction that conjures an autonomous
foetal embodiment at the detriment of the pregnant body.2 The effect of using new technological imaging capabilities creates an ethic-political discourse positing that the foetus as a new public image is a rights bearing ‘individual’ over and above those of the pregnant woman carrying it.

The idea of ‘foetal celebrity’ began and developed in the 1960s as a consequence of ultra-sound and other medical imaging technologies, as an effect of this, foetal imagery not only transformed women’s experience of pregnancy and birth, but impacted significantly on the sphere of reproductive politics as the foetus became perceived and understood as a subject with its own social and civil rights. A substantial body of feminist work has critically interrogated the social and cultural impact of foetal imaging technologies, particularly in regards to its role in the promotion of ‘pro-life’ politics. This scholarship has highlighted the ways in which maternal subjectivity is erased which reinforces the idea that the foetus has an identity that is ‘separate and autonomous from the mother’.3

The visualisation of the foetus through medical imaging technology, not only pushes the pregnant woman to the periphery but also allocates foetal personhood. The dominating scientific interest and the reconstruction of the discourse of ‘life’ as something that can be observed, and then managed not only perceives the foetus as a separate patient but also reduces the function of the mother to that of a temporary vessel with an expiry date. Sarah Franklin refers to this discourse as ‘biologization’, which ‘primarily naturalises the construction of the foetuses as persons morally equivalent to women.’ With this in mind it is necessary to unpack the discourse 4 that surrounds foetal personhood and how it is illustrated in visual examples in the abortion campaign. Foetal personhood has been
identified as playing a major part in the creation of a culture of deviancy surrounding abortion, and is seen as a crucial element in restoring patriarchal control over women’s bodies.5

These advances in technology gave form and dynamism to a heretofore ambiguous ‘other’ and thrust the foetus into the battle for space and control over women’s bodies. Images that capture a foetal personhood are publicised and popularised – particularly on the pro-life Youth Defence website – and urge the social recognition of foetal personhood on the basis of analogies with its perceptible semi-human form. This development has created a ‘separable’ relationship between a woman and foetus one capable of generating public sympathy for the portrayed ‘helpless’ and ‘vulnerable’ – which jeopardises the woman’s rights and autonomy. The creation of a discourse of foetal personhood by anti-abortion movements has been reviewed as a strategy to taint women who have chosen to end their pregnancies and are framed as ending ‘innocent human lives’. Through the use of language that denotes embodied subjectivity, in this case ‘unborn human rights,’ this discourse confers the status of foetal personhood upon the foetus, subsequently ‘imploring society to protect these vulnerable subjects.’6


Youth Defence, ‘Am I Child or Am I Choice?’ 2013

This subjectivity is visually supported in many of Youth Defence’s publications, specifically the example ‘My heart has been beating since I was 21 days old’, which uses a close up of a foetus’ face and hands in a saturated red tonal palette (Fig.2). It is not only in the detail of the veins of the foetus’ eyelids or the nails of its fingers that express a life but the conscious decision of portraying such a red coloration that symbolises ‘life’. By utilising this image with the following caption ‘Am I A Child or Am I A Choice?’ it frames to suggest that a woman obtaining an abortion is murdering another human being and thus echoes the fact that she should and could be criminalised under Irish law. The unborn foetus is presented as a victim of injustice, therefore the person responsible – the pregnant woman – is presented as a perpetrator of injustice. The ‘human being’ (foetus) is presented as an independent agent, separate from the woman carrying it, resulting in a reversal of agency. Hence there is a challenging of positions whereby the foetus fluctuates from being the ‘commander’ of the pregnancy, and as innocently being carried as was the case previous to medical imaging technology and the promotion of these images where the foetus is no longer the ‘the inert passenger in a pregnancy’.7

In light of the foetal personhood discourse the understanding of the foetus as a person can be translated and inferred by the visual contribution of the pro-life side. Thus, by the guise of sentimentality the foetus is constructed with a ‘super-subject’ status and the woman is subsequently constructed as a foetal incubator and life-support system.8 The woman is not pregnant with a foetus, she is a mother with a child. Thus motherhood is equated to the pregnant state, ‘mother’ is synonymous with ‘woman’. Ultimately, what can be established from this visual input is that abortion is a negative and unwanted issue in Ireland, however it can no longer be silenced.

unnamedRachel Botha is a Visual and Critical Studies postgraduate from the Dublin Institute of Technology, she completed her thesis on the representation of motherhood in the abortion debate. Previous to that, she studied History of Art and Theology at Trinity College Dublin. She is the co-founder of Eight Stories, a Dublin-based project committed to telling the stories of those who support the pro-choice abortion movement in Ireland, using street art and curated events to provoke thought and start conversations. She has recently presented a paper titled ‘Mother Ireland’s Facelift – the representation of motherhood in the expression of national identity’, at the Mise Eire – Shaping the Nation through Design at the National Museum of Ireland.


1 Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 4. Barbara Duden is a German medical historian, a scholar of gender studies, and professor of the University of Hannover. Her work significantly based upon the body as a site for historical inquiry.

2 Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, 14.
3 Lisa Smyth, Abortion and Nation: The Politics of Reproduction in Contemporary Ireland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005),

4 Lisa Smyth, Abortion and Nation: The Politics of Reproduction in Contemporary Ireland, 30. Sarah Franklin is an American anthropologist who has contributed to the fields of feminism, gender studies, cultural studies and the social study of reproductive and genetic technology. In 2011 she was elected to the Professorship of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.
5 Richard Roberts and JMM Good, The Recovery of Rhetoric: Persuasive Discourse and Disciplinarity in the Human
Sciences, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 34.

6 Leah Ivy,“Deconstructing, Reclaiming, and Transforming the Discourse of Foetal Personhood: A Pro-Choice Feminist
Imperative.” Unpublished MA dissertation (Texas Woman’s University, 2005), 4.
7 Lisa Smyth,, Abortion and Nation: The Politics of Reproduction in Contemporary Ireland, 29.

8 Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1995), 23.


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