Within hours of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy being officially announced, references were being made on the internet to a new individual: the ‘royal foetus’. Several spoof Twitter accounts were set up on behalf of this personage, providing ‘live tweets from the royal womb’. Other tweeters commented that the royal foetus was already richer and in a greater position of power than they (see here for my Storify of initial reactions to Middleton’s pregnancy).
While this seems like harmless fun, underpinning these representations of the ‘royal foetus’ is an inexorable move in western cultures towards the infantilising of the unborn, positioning them as already babies well before birth. More so than at any other time in western cultural history, the unborn are considered separate from the maternal body, autonomous, possessing individuality, personality and full moral personhood from embryonic form onwards.
The emergence of the unborn into the public spotlight began with the beautiful images produced by photojournalist Lennart Nilsson (ironically mostly of dead embryonic and foetal specimens) from the 1950s onwards that showed unborn bodies floating serenely in space, seemingly untethered to the maternal body. It has intensified with the growing use of obstetric ultrasound since the late 1970s, a visualising technology that encourages pregnant women and their partners and family members to view the foetus as a little person in its own right, very much distinct from the body in which it is growing.
The image of the unborn has become a commodity. Since the development of 3/4D ultrasound marketed solely for ‘bonding’ purposes, potential parents are invited to begin their ‘baby albums’ with these ultrasounds, which are often widely shared with friends and family via social media platforms. Ultrasounds are now used in a range of goods, including advertisements, canvas art, scrapbooking materials, specialised photo frames, baby shower invitations, jewellery and maternity t-shirts (see here for my Pinterest collection ‘The Ultrasound as Cultural Artefact’).
The gradual disappearance of the maternal body as it gives way to the fetishising of the foetus has occurred at the same time as pregnant women are positioned as being ever more important to the health and optimal development of their unborn (Lupton, forthcoming). It seems that dominant representations of the pregnant body either erase it completely, as in the visual imagery of the autonomous foetus, or position it as engulfing and threatening to the unborn. Pregnant women must negotiate these two paradoxical portrayals. Kate Middleton will do so in the context in which hers will be the most public pregnancy in the world. She will be under intense scrutiny to provide the ‘royal foetus’ with a uterine environment worthy of its rank.
Lupton, D. (forthcoming) The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Houndmills: Palgrave.