Women's and Gender Studies Program


Date of this Version

Summer 2013


Published in Journal of Social History, Volume 46, Number 4, Summer 2013, pp. 1075-1077. doi:10.1093/jsh/shs074


Published by Oxford University Press. Used by permission.


With the publication of the Bancroft Prize-winning Ourselves Unborn, Sara Dubow offers a long overdue analysis and historicization of what has become a central feature in battles over reproductive rights: the fetus. Drawing upon legal and legislative records as well as educational tracts, museum exhibits, medical textbooks and journals, personal memoirs, and the popular press, Dubow traces what she calls “fetal stories” (4) in America from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first. In so doing, she persuasively reminds her readers the following: First, that our understanding of the fetus is not simply a product of biology or theology. Rather, it also speaks to Americans’ values and politics, and because these are rooted in specific historical moments, they bring with them specific understandings of “personhood, family, motherhood, and national identity” (3). Thus in a play on words, the book’s title suggests that a history of the fetus reveals as much about ourselves as it does whatever it is that occupies women’s wombs. Second, she makes clear that these understandings have changed over time. As she puts it nicely: a “fetus in 1870 is not the same thing as a fetus in 1930, which is not the same thing as a fetus in 1970, which is not the same thing as a fetus in 2010” (3)—words that ring like music to this historian’s ears. Third, she shows how these fetal debates extend beyond abortion rights and influence such things as workplace policies and drug enforcement programs, a crucial reminder as to the many ramifications of fetal politics. Finally, she makes clear that recent debates about fetal identities are hardly new. Instead, and in the case of this book, they have been playing themselves out for over a hundred years.