First 100 Days: The Fetal Fetish: Playing with Time as a Form of Affect Regulation

By Katie Gentile


Katie GPresident Trump just attempted, and failed, to negotiate the end of Planned Parenthood’s abortion services in exchange for PPH’s continued federal funding, even though no federal funds are used for PPH’s abortion services. This President has said pregnant women should face a criminal penalty for seeking out an abortion. Many states have passed such restrictive bureaucratic demands on abortion providers that at this point, thousands of women have to travel hundreds of miles to access the medical procedure, often then facing a mandatory waiting period. At least four states have considered criminalizing miscarriage and a number of women have already been arrested for “child endangerment” after miscarrying (Gentile, 2014). Currently 38 states have enacted fetal personhood or homicide laws. Although these laws were designed to address the danger intimate partner violence poses to fetuses (IPV is a leading cause of birth defects), and it was initially stated they not to be used against the mother, of course, they have been. Paltrow’s 2013 report demonstrates that the vast majority of criminal cases of fetal personhood have been against the mother, in particular, economically disadvantaged women of color.

Clearly, if we haven’t gotten the message yet, fetuses have more rights than women, and the male body is evacuated of any and all responsibility for reproduction. While this message is not new, and most of these laws were passed before the Trump Administration came to power, the vitriol leveled at women’s reproductive and sexual sovereignty seems to have hit a new hysterical high for many legislators. Not surprisingly, the election of a president who bragged about sexually assaulting women has emboldened those in the Republican camp who hold the most draconian views on women’s sovereignty, and silenced those who might disagree. While reproductive rights for women have been chipped away at, or bludgeoned in some states, for decades, the elevation of the fetus to fetishistic levels is relatively new, gaining traction as ultrasounds made them visible, and risk management techniques produced a heavily surveillance based form of prenatal care (Gentile, 2013; 2016a,b). Given the current administration’s increased reliance on fear mongering as a form of affect-based social control, this fetish is being called upon to justify even more restrictions on CISgender women’s and transgendermen’s bodies. But this fetish is complicated as it exploits the temporal structure of the culture locating the future in the process of heterosexual reproduction.

Cooper (2008) writes that neoliberalism pre-9/11 was based on the idea of the future as euphoric and unlimited, but since 9/11, a future based on privatized catastrophe has dominated. The image of a fetus can be a fetish of temporal wholeness in the face of anxiety, simultaneously recasting the past, present, and future as unidimensional, linear and certain; free of ambivalence and conflict. The fetal fetish represents a sentimental nostalgia for the wished-for simplicity of the lost past of childhood, while embodying the promise of an innocent future, untainted by the present anxieties, a form of what Edelman (2004) and Halberstam (2005) term “reprofuturity.” Reprofuturity evacuates alternative temporal paths from existence, paths that challenge the idealized heterosexual, middle-class, white, reproductive narrative. The fantasy fetus embodies “the for” that makes the pain and ambivalence of the present meaningful and tolerable (Ahmed, 2010). This fetal fetish is imperative to the affective networks attempting to find certainty in the face of a tenuous future, in particular in the face of what Morton (2013) has termed hyperobjects (e.g. climate change and economic instabilities). Hyperobjects intensify the gap between phenomenon and thing painfully highlighting the failures of our representational systems, reminding us of our limitations. Thus, for humans, hyperobjects are humiliating, bursting our bubble of narcissistic human exceptionalism.

As psychoanalysts know well, humiliations often result in the mobilization of narcissistic defenses against reality. These defenses are thick and unyielding and often bound by an impenetrable network of shame. Integrating psychoanalytic theory with cultural theories of affect we can cast the use of the fetus as a desperate and dangerous narcissistic defense by the cultural body that is using the fetal body to disavow annihilation anxieties.

While this defensive use of the fetus produces simplistic pasts and futures, it also necessarily shapes the always emergent present (Gentile, 2016a). First, it creates a present with racial and class-based social stratifications, as fetal protection laws are wielded almost exclusively against low-income women of color (see Paltrow 2013), while women of economic means are urged toward reproductive technologies. Within this cultural context, fetal protectionism plays with time to manufacture a particular, socially stratified hope-full future in the midst of growing uncertainty by rendering a present where certain bodies are vulnerable (the fetus) and others dangerous (the maternal body that is subjected to criminal justice and/or medicalized surveillance). This split enables not only a continual re-enactment of disavowed aggression toward the maternal and vulnerability toward the fetus, but also the production of the heroic rescuer who is empowered with certainty through the act of protecting the endangered fetus from the abject maternal body. Thus, vulnerable (fetal), dangerous (maternal), and heroic (male) bodies are produced through temporal defenses that function merely to reinforce misogyny under the cloak of fetal healthcare. Of course this narcissistic enactment of “protection” is based primarily on the culture’s needs for splitting and disavowal and not on the needs of the developing fetus. Once the fetus emerges as a subject, a baby, protections are withdrawn (Gentile, 2016 a,b).

So it is no surprise given the ways these narcissistic defenses of disavowal are operating at the social level that we now have multiple governmental bodies willing and able to follow the impulsive demands of a President, who is known for his habits of projection and disavowal. But this narcissism needs to be tied directly to the structures of heteronormative masculinity and patriarchy, where protections are now given only in the most macho of ways – increased military spending and fetal “protection.” But this new level of fetal protection no longer even includes the pretence of prenatal care – care being a “weak” and “feminine” quality and, as Republican Congressperson Shimkus pointed out, men should not be required to pay for prenatal care. (Needless to say he is not even considering the position of a pregnant transgender man) Instead, this new form of prenatal care operates almost exclusively through criminalizing maternal behaviors. This takes the previous use of “prenatal care guidelines” for controlling female identified bodies (see Gentile, 2013) to a new height. This is a patriarchal win-win, again, as all vulnerability is contained in the fetal body, all danger contained in the maternal body, while the governmental bodies emerge as the strong, heroic rescuers.

With perfect timing, the Sunday March 12, New York Times, published an essay by Margaret Atwood describing the difficulties she faced writing her book The Handmaid’s Tale, where she had to convey to readers a United States post-coup, when democracy had been replaced by a theocratic dictatorship. In the book women are split into groups based on the reproductive labor they will provide. It appears we are careening toward this dystopia faster than Atwood ever imagined.

References for The Fetal Fetish





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