The Anthropology of the Fetus: Biology, Culture, and Society

The Anthropology of the Fetus: Biology, Culture, and Society. Sallie Han, Tracy K. Betsinger, and Amy B. Scott, eds., New York: Bergahn Books, 2018, 298 pp.

In her foreword to The Anthropology of the Fetus, Rayna Rapp does not mince words. She writes, “the fetus and its centrality to any story of human origins are now front and center in our life sciences, our bioengineering market economies, and—of course—in our reproductive politics” (p. xiv). In their introduction, Sallie Han, Tracy K. Betsinger, and Amy B. Scott note that in reality, there are “various anthropologies of fetuses that have yet to come into conversation with one another” (p. 3). The pieces included in this robust, 11-chapter volume strive to facilitate more direct dialogue between anthropologists studying the unborn from diverse perspectives and methods.

Part I, The Fetus in Biosocial Perspective, features work by biological and sociocultural anthropologists. Julienne Rutherford’s chapter offers a theoretical provocation with her concept of “the borderless fetus” (p. 15). Rutherford uses three frames—genetic complexity, experimental connectivity, and placental synchronicity—to convey that the fetus cannot be easily defined in terms of finite material or temporal boundaries. Rather, it extends backward and forward in time and between bodies. Next, Kathleen Ann Satterlee Blake provides an in-depth account of osteological methods and analyses available for studying the fetus from a biological anthropological perspective. Han then traces three moments in the American cultural history of the fetus: the vulnerable fetus, the personal fetus, and the rematerialized fetus (pp. 60–61). From the kitsch (fetus cupcake, anyone?) to the cutting edge (epigenetic research), Han’s attention to materiality gracefully transitions to the following section.

Part II, Finding Fetuses in the Past: Archaeology and Bioarchaeology, consists of four chapters that vary in scope and aim. Siân E. Halcrow, Nancy Tayles, and Gail E. Elliott, writing about bioarchaeolgy, and Mary E. Lewis, writing about paleopathology, provide state-of-the-field reviews and highlight new research findings and their implications. Like Blake and Rutherford, the authors stress the wealth of information that prenatal remains have to offer, especially for reconstructing maternal and community health profiles. They also address methodological constraints, which include difficulties estimating age-at-death, problems with preservation, and a lack of criteria for distinguishing between normal growth indicators and those suggesting disease or trauma.

The next two chapters illuminate how archaeologists make connections between research questions and data. Jacek Kabaciński, Agnieszka Czekaj-Zastawny, and Joel D. Irish walk readers through the mortuary analysis of a Neolithic infant cemetery at Gebel Ramlah, located in southern Egypt. Pointing to the cemetery itself and the ample mortuary data collected on burial preparation, body position, and grave offerings, the authors suggest that fetuses and newborns occupied a valued status in the community. Next, Scott and Betsinger draw on work with remains from a postmedieval cemetery in Drawskow, Poland, to explore the concept of fetal identity, or “the social significance a particular culture group might have ascribed to fetuses” (p. 146). While unbaptized individuals occupied a liminal status in Church doctrine, the inclusion of fetuses and newborns in the cemetery, along with their standard burial treatment, lead Betsinger and Scott to conclude that these youngest individuals were considered full members of their community and mourned in death.

While biological anthropology and archaeology face material and environmental constraints, reluctance to recognize the fetus as a viable and conceptually important topic also means that excavators and students are not necessarily trained to recognize or be aware of fetal remains. The repeated discussion in Parts I and II of the developmental origins of health and disease framework reflects enthusiasm about using studies of fetal remains in the past to inform contemporary research on social inequality and health disparities. Nevertheless, for these researchers, the absence of the fetus continues to pose challenges. This stands in marked contrast to the overlapping domains of sociocultural, medical, and feminist anthropology, where research on the unborn has generated decades of provocative ethnography and theory.

Part III, The Once and Future Fetus: Sociocultural Anthropology, features four chapters. Risa D. Cromer draws on fieldwork conducted at an embryo adoption agency, a university-based research biobank, and a fertility clinic to examine the politics and practices of waiting that engulf frozen embryos, along with the individuals and organizations attempting to deliver them to divergent futures. Jessica Marie Newman explores the rise of the fetus in the politics of motherhood and abortion in Morocco, where fetal imaging and diagnostic technologies enable doctors to produce authoritative claims about their patients’ pregnancies. Doing so minimizes the degree of agency afforded to pregnant women in Islamic bioethical traditions and Moroccan ethnogynecological practices, and the rewriting of this script has serious consequences for women attempting to manage pregnancy outside the accepted confines of marriage.

Sonja Luehrmann uses research with Russian Orthodox anti-abortion activists to delineate a “visual and verbalized imagery of the fetus” quite distinct from the fetus-as-bare-life promoted in the United States (p. 228). She situates these differences in relation to legacies of Soviet scientific culture, demographic anxieties fueled by war, conflict, and protracted conditions of political insecurity, and the Orthodox Church’s increasing presence in the Russian public sphere. Finally, Rebecca Howes-Mischel’s chapter shows that while American anti-abortion activists use the fetal heartbeat to assert the existence of autonomous fetal personhood, health care providers in Oaxaca use the sound of the heartbeat to encourage expectant mothers to bond with the fetus inside of them. This connectivity becomes a mode of discipline, as physicians exhort their patients to better care for themselves, which will ostensibly improve reproductive health metrics in this underserved region of Mexico.

Anthropologists working on the contemporary fetus navigate complex dynamics of kinship, gender, medicine, science, and state authority. They attend to surprising convergences and grapple with subtle yet significant differences. Cromer urges readers to recognize the resemblances between the redemptive logics of the embryo adoption agency and the research biobank, moving beyond easy dichotomies of “pro-life versus pro-choice, science versus religion, woman versus conceptus” (p. 173). Newman points out that by medicalizing the fetus, Moroccan activists can promote a distinctly illiberal argument in their attempts to expand the criteria for legal abortion. Luehrmann, on the other hand, cautions against equating the motivations of pro-life, Russian Orthodox activists with those of their American counterparts. Her Russian interlocutors criticized the American focus on the fetus, instead situating their pro-life commitments as a way to support the family and protect the nation by ensuring the potentiality of future citizens. Finally, while Howes-Mischel traces the parallel instrumentalization of the fetal heartbeat in American reproductive politics and Oaxacan maternal health care, she places this acoustic signature within divergent social networks and biopolitical agendas.

The Anthropology of the Fetus is a rich and ambitious volume. The contributors draw on cutting-edge research and deep knowledge of their fields to further our understanding of the complex and liminal beings we call fetuses (the definitional subtleties of which are discussed throughout). Needless to say, the volume’s interdisciplinary breadth makes it a valuable resource for both teachers and researchers. Given the notable theoretical and methodological differences between the sections, not to mention the diversity within each, it would have been fascinating to hear the contributors speak more directly to each other. Do biological and bioarchaeological researchers working with fetal remains get drawn into contemporary reproductive politics in their fieldsites? How do sociocultural anthropologists make sense of the patterns and parallels linking disparate corners of the world? A fascinatingly consistent thread connects all of these pieces: ever-expanding technologies that play a critical role in finding, seeing, knowing, and claiming the fetus.