My two new books on unborn humans



Last month both my new books on the topic of the unborn (human embryos and foetuses) were published. One is an authored book, part of the Palgrave Pivot series, entitled The Social Worlds of the Unborn. The other, The Unborn Human, is an open access book that I edited as part of the Living Books about Life series published by the Open Humanities Press.

Both books deal with very similar issues and theoretical perspectives, and therefore complement each other nicely. The Social Worlds of the Unborn has five substantive chapters. The first chapter examines what I call ‘contingencies of the unborn’, drawing on sociological, anthropological, bioethical, philosophical and historical perspectives to highlight the dynamic nature of the ways we think about foetuses and embryos and the debates over the extent of their humanness and personhood. I then go on in the next chapter to discuss technologies for visualising the unborn, such as foetal photography and computer imaging and obstetric ultrasound. These have been particularly important technologies in opening up the uterus to the gaze so that we can see the previously mysterious entities that inhabit this space. I argue that visualising technologies have worked to represent unborn entities as already persons in their own right, autonomous from the maternal body, and indeed as already infants. These images also represent the unborn as beautiful, fragile and vulnerable entities requiring our utmost love and protection, and thus are powerful agents in anti-abortion politics.

In the third chapter of this book I focus on pregnant women’s perspectives on the unborn entities growing within their own bodies. I highlight the ambivalence that pregnant women often feel about this Other body inhabiting their own, as well as their difficulty in coming to terms with their ‘two-in-one’ bodies that depart so radically from the contained, unitary bodily norm. The concept of the ‘good mother’ often precludes acknowledgement that pregnant women may sometimes feel as if their unborn is antagonistic and even parasitic. Yet these feelings are not uncommon in pregnant women, in addition to the more culturally accepted notions of the unborn as precious proto-infants.

The next chapter goes on to examine the dead unborn, including discussion of abortion practices, policies and politics, decisions about the disposal of surplus IVF embryos and the mourning and memorialisation of unborn entities lost in miscarriage or stillbirth. It also looks at bioscientific definitions of the unborn and how working practices in the medical clinic or stem cell laboratory operate to deal with using matter from dead unborn entities. Here again issues concerning judgements about the humanness and status of personhood of various unborn entities are to the fore. I demonstrated that the context in which these entities are created and grow (or fail to develop) is vital to concepts of their value and vitality.

The final substantive chapter examines the concept of the endangered unborn, particularly in relation to how pregnant women are represented as posing a threat to their unborn through ignorance or deliberate negligence. I argue that the increasing humanisation and personalising of the unborn and their representation as precious, vulnerable and as already infants with full human privileges work to position them as more important than the women who bear them, who increasingly as positioned as vessels rather than as individuals with their own rights and needs that may differ from those of their unborn.

The edited book, The Unborn Human, takes up many of these issues. I review the contents of the book in my Introduction (‘Conceptualising and configuring the unborn human‘), showing how each item in the collection contributes to various ways of thinking about, treating, representing, creating or destroying unborn entities. Like the other books in the Living Books about Life series, The Unborn Human is a curated collection of material that is available as open access publications. Some of this material can be viewed via links to the website embedded in the book, while others can be directly accessed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence. This means that all of the articles and other materials included in the book, which range from historical documents to scientific, medical, bioethical, policy, sociological, anthropological and cultural studies articles as well as social and other digital media material such as websites, blog posts and YouTube videos, can be accessed for free (including my introduction using the link supplied above).

7 thoughts on “My two new books on unborn humans

  1. You are truly amazing! Could I get you to comment on your productivity? How does one write not one, but two, books at the same time, in addition to (I am sure, but correct me if I am wrong) several articles,other university responsibilities, young family, and not to mention, a long-winded (that’s not meant to sound dismissive, I just can’t think of another word for “lots of words”) blog?

    In any case, congratulations. I’ll ask our library to buy both books, and will comment about them on my own blog (see ,

    • Thanks Annemarie. Before you are overly impressed, I should point out that one of the books is edited and the authored book is quite short for an academic tome (to fit the Palgrave Pivot format)!

      But it helps that I have a research-only position and am a boringly super-organised person, as well as truly having a passion for academic research and writing that impels me to get the words onto the computer screen pretty quickly. I discuss some of my tricks of the trade in my blog post on tips for research here.

      • Still….

        I think your list is fabulous, and actually, I do practically all of those things (except that I keep my pdf files labelled by author and date, and use key words in endnote to locate them). To echo your recommendations, I am a great believer in planning, I have strong ideas about building new ideas out of old ideas, I write all the time, protect my time, make lists, mountain bike or run every day, talk with other writers, make networks, be strategic, etc. etc. What’s more, most people think of me as incredibly productive, but next to you, whew!

        Well done.

  2. I find your work so interesting, Deborah. I follow many of your boards on and bundlr. Here’s something I read today that I thought you’d find interesting. Very much related to your latest work: I Measure Every Single Thing My Child Does
    homo economicus gone mad or perfect parenting…??

    • Thank you Lena! I actually saw this a couple of days ago and had a Twitter conversation about it with a few others interested in the quantified self. I couldn’t believe the data-centrism of this article. Quite amazing, and evidence of extreme parental neuroticism in my view. As you spotted, this approach to parenting nicely brings together my interest in parenting culture, digital technologies and the quantified self …

      • Sorry for cross-posting then 🙂 I’ll have to try and track down that Twitter convo!

        I guess the data-centrism of the article was exactly the point the article was trying to make but it amazed me as well how data-driven these parents are! I am sure there have always been parents obsessed with ensuring that the development of their child follows the norm, ticks all the boxes (first teeth at age x, first words at age y, first steps at age z, etc.), and who find comfort in having some sort of quantifiable goal to strive for or to measure their child’s development up against. Yet this extreme quantification of a child’s every move, which starts before the baby is even born (as you argue in your books too!), seems to really be taking rational-economic thinking applied to subjectively defined ends to a whole new level. This particularly shines through in the fact that these parents argue that they are developing a more intimate connection with their child through their in depth “knowledge” of its development via numbers, tracking and spreadsheets…

        But I guess this is happening everywhere around us. You just have to look at campaigns (funded by governments – a whole nother aspect of this quantification business…!) like the ‘Measure Up’ campaign here in Australia. I am sure you’ve seen the TV ad of a man walking along a path laid out with a tape measure. With each step he advances through life. We see him starting a job and a family, and along the way incrementally gaining weight. Towards the end of the ad he appears to be in his early forties and overweight. He attempts to play with his daughter, chasing after her, yet struggles to keep up. The ad ends with the slogan: ‘the more you gain, the more you have to lose’. Throughout the ad, a voiceover provides facts and statistics about obesity such as ‘one in two Australian adults is overweight’ and ‘for most people, waistlines of over 94cm for men and 80cm for women increase the risk of some cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes’. At the end of the ad viewers are asked to consider how they ‘measure up’ compared to what the government proposes is a healthy waistline circumference. It establishes a numerical norm (94cm for men, 80cm for women) according to which people are expected to orient their goals and actions. This quantification appeals to the individual, who sees him/herself as an enterprise to improve and perfect; it provides a rational-economic goal to strive for, and reassures the individual of what is normal and desirable. So this calculated logic comes to shape people’s goals and aspirations. The double entendre in the statement ‘the more you gain the more you have to lose’, obviously referring to the weight the man has put on, as well as to the valuable, non-material and irreplaceable things he has acquired in his life, such as his family, couples the rational-economic appeal to weigh up the costs and benefits of being obese with the appeal to viewers emotions….

      • Yes, Lena, I agree, the ‘Measure Up’ campaign is fascinating for its focus on measurements (this time low-tech) related to happiness and healthiness. I do an analysis of the rationale of this campaign as well as the ‘Swap It, Don’t Stop It’ campaign in a forthcoming article to be published in the Fat Studies journal. I look at the documents of social research companies used to do formative research to inform the development of these campaigns and how they represent the publics they are attempting reach.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s