Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality

Newman, Karen

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Feb-03-1997
  • Last revised: Nov-28-2006


Karen Newman traces the visual depictions of the pregnant female body, the fetus, and obstetrical illustrations from the 9th century to the present in western culture. These images, in which the fetus looks baby-like or even adult and in which the female body is truncated or mythologized, have supported the anti-feminist rhetoric where the fetus or embryo is privileged with full human rights. Even in the fetal studies by Leonardo da Vinci (Studies of the Fetus), which were far more accurate than any prior or concurrent renditions, the roles of the uterus and placenta are de-emphasized and the uterus is simply a vessel, "almost a Fabergé egg."

Analysis and critique of medical art history is of relevance for today's society: "Early obstetrical illustration, Bologna's Museo ostetrico, and eighteenth-century anatomical sculpture and engraving are not merely antiquarian esoterica; rather, they constitute crucial political knowledge for the present." In fact, the book begins and ends in the 20th century.

In the first section, a close analysis of the Lennart Nilsson fetal photographs in Life Magazine "Drama of Life Before Birth" (1965) reveals that not only the photo captions, but also the manipulations of the specimens during and prior to photography (all the pictures but one were ex utero), were designed to proclaim and reinforce "fetal personhood." A similar conclusion is reached at the end of the book, when images from the current, widely used obstetrical text and from new imaging procedures are examined.


The author, through selection and interpretation of many images of the female body and the fetus (103 images are reproduced in the book), demonstrates that not only are language and rhetoric important in the abortion debates (e.g., "pro-choice" versus "abortion," "pro-life" versus "anti-abortion"), but the historical and contemporary visual images are critical as well.


Stanford Univ. Press

Place Published

Stanford, Calif.



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