Monday, August 01, 2005

Ultrasound and the Scourge of Objectivity

I found this article to be quite fascinating and instructive for all of the ways in which it tries to avoid the critical challenges that the issue of abortion might be seen to present. I take Carr's jargon-burdened point to be something like, the pregnant body is inherently destabilized (and destabilizing, she would surely add,) therefore no one can reliably assign categories to it like public or private, subjective vs. objective. She's saying something like "a fetus can be both wave and particle," if you get what I mean. I agree with her to a large extent which is the problem I have been trying to work through with my analysis of the dual subjectivity of the pregnant woman and her fetus and the critical process of discerning whether bearing that subjectivity is something that a woman can possibly bring herself to do without doing violence to herself. That's the role that a pregnant woman plays in determining the course of her pregnancy, and there is no substitute for it, and no one can do it for her. Pregnancy really is that personal, and that profound.

But then we get to the whole business about the ultrasound, and that's where Carr's argument goes into screaming reactionary mode. Carr makes clear that she feels her rights being threatened by the very concept of the ultrasound, but none of her reasons stand up. She accuses the ultrasound of being a patriarchal plot, a surveillance tool of the modern state, a bourgeois invention hearkening back to Freud and the days of hysterics - she basically throws the post-modern book at the ultrasound, hoping something will stick. But nothing does. I would wager that almost all ultrasound technicians are women and that most pregnant women enjoy the experience. There's no patriarchal plot taking place. Nobody has ever been forced to take an ultrasound, and the results aren't public. There's no surveillance either. And there's nothing condescending about it towards women's emotional states either. The Freud thing doesn't make sense.

In fact it's obvious that the whole reason why Carr doesn't like the ultrasound is because of the notion of scientific objectivity which it introduces into pregnancy. To avoid the very possibility that science, rather than a pregnant woman's subjective choice, might have something to say about the morality of terminating a pregnancy, Carr has to rehearse a reactionary post-modern screed against science itself - now it's science that's the bourgeois, patriarchal plot. There's nowhere to go in this argument but backwards, as reactionary reasoning always must go. Carr throws around post-modern phraseology like an English professor on speed in order to get out of the argument alive but in the end she just tails off, exhausted. She's left staring at that screen, and Foucault can't do a damn thing to help her.

Where does that leave the discussion of abortion rights? Carr's argument proves, through its ineffectiveness, that there is an objective component to the debate which science is coming perilously closer to proving. The construction of personhood is partly subjective, but not entirely so. A newborn infant doesn't come from nowhere (like the stork) and a pregnant woman doesn't will its body into being. In the near future when fetal surgery, or genetic therapy, becomes common-place, it will be harder and harder to deny that there is a threshold to the origins of personhood which begins at some point during those now-mysterious nine months. As Carr rightly recognizes, the ultrasound is the beginning of the end of the purely subjective argument for abortion rights.

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