Fetus Fetish on the Firing Line: A Conversation

by Akim Reinhardt and Jennifer Ballengee

Human embryo at 4 weeks
Human embryo at 4 weeks

First Discussant: For anti-abortion extremists, abortion is a fetish. It’s a symptom that covers a repressed, secret, and socially unacceptable desire. What desire? I’m not sure; it’s their fetish, not mine. But whatever it may be, it drives anti-abortion protestors to scream about saving lives, to hold up posters of fully-formed fetuses (rather than the mass of cells you see in an ultrasound at six weeks or so), and to demand that we save those unformed lives. However, those images of fully-formed fetuses are a lie. They are visual metaphors which, as metaphors do, compare two unlike things: “life” in its social, meaningful context, and the bare life of any cell mass, whether an amoeba, plant, worm, or human. The “sacred” aspect of the human—which lends it the claim to human rights, or gives it its meaning in punishment or execution or “life”—is not innate but imagined. However, if we were to admit that we’re a mass of cells like any other life form, then we’d all have to be vegetarians, or cannibals.

The Respondent: I agree that anti-abortion extremism is a fetish, a form of idolatry where supplicants worship a non-sentient globule for its spiritual and even magical powers. I call this the Fetus Fetish. It’s actually more of an embryo fetish, but I like alliterations. Perhaps it’s not surprising since the vast, vast majority of extremists are very religious and typically espouse Christian notions of a divinely formed soul within every human being upon conception, leading them to entangle embryos with ideas about the sacred. That seems pretty straightforward. What grabs me is your implication that anti-abortion extremism is grounded in a form of religious speciesism. That only by replacing honest observation and rational thought with supernatural religiosity could one conclude that a tiny collection of microscopic, embryonic cells is somehow more worthy of a sacred life than an adult chicken, or that even a twenty-week old fetus, which despite the miracles of modern medical technologies absolutely cannot live outside a woman’s womb, is somehow on a par with, much less the better of, an adult cow or pig or dog. All you have to do is look an adult dog or pig in the eye to recognize you’re dealing with a mature, highly developed, self-sustaining, thinking mammal whose existence has infinitely more in common with your own than does an embryo or early stage fetus. Yes, either eat all the animals or none of them; or at least use that dichotomy as a starting point for some deep thought about your place in the universe.

But then there’s abortion opponents’ argument about “potential,” which I think gets at another, psychological element driving anti-abortion extremism. Some who oppose abortion point out that even if you don’t think much of a human embryo, it does have the potential to, and very likely will, eventually grow into a full fledged human being. That of course is true, though it doesn’t carry much weight with me. After all, it’s like saying an acorn will eventually become an oak tree. Sure. But right now it’s not an oak tree or even a sapling. It’s an acorn. That’s what it is, and no sense pretending otherwise. When one mature oak dies, it means something profound for the forest; when a squirrel eats one acorn, it does not. Yet many people, including those who are not deeply religious, can get behind the “potential” argument to support, if not absolute bans on abortion, other restrictions that lead to totalitarian, patriarchal control measures on women’s bodies (eg. allowing abortions of embryos but not non-viable fetuses). Why? I think the answer, at least in some cases, is narcissism. A line of thinking that goes something like: If any embryo or fetus can be aborted, then I could have been aborted! I don’t think many people necessarily dwell on that thought, or even articulate it openly to themselves. However, even as it remains unspoken, I do think it subtly drives a lot of people’s thinking. I suspect that deep down, many anti-abortion extremists see abortion as not just a killing of someone else’s “baby” (the Christian intepretation), but also as a personal attack on their own right to exist. When people make the patently absurd claim that an embryo has rights, and then self-identify as Right-to-Life, I think on some level they’re demanding the right to their own life. They’re conflating themselves with the unborn and thereby making it about themselves, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. And this goes hand-in-hand with fetishization.

FD: That’s a really good observation that I hadn’t considered. I think you’re right about the right-to-life movement being driven by narcissism. And I’m intrigued by how it dovetails with a much-critiqued paradox of anti-abortion extremism: opponents celebrate and obsess over the embryo and fetus, and then all but ignore it after birth. Once the baby is born, governments, particularly in red, anti-abortion states, don’t seem to give a shit, particularly if the baby is poor. Otherwise there would be: guaranteed parental leave for longer periods of time (which are proven to improve the mental and physical health of the baby); greater supports for nursing mothers (again, for the health of the baby); subsidized or free daycare (for the health and socialization of the baby), etc. But these things aren’t there. All Right-to-Lifers seem to care about is that embryonic/fetal “potential,” not the actual baby it eventually becomes.  

Thus, if narcissism is their motivation, it seems to manifest in a wish to be born again. I mean that literally, not in the Christian evangelical sense, though there’s that, too. They want to have another go at it. A wish to be an infant again, full of potential, and not yet fucked up in any way, or not yet having fucked up in any way.

TR: Right. Psychologically, anti-abortion extremists identify with the “innocent” embryo/fetus, and see themselves in the promise of the newborn baby. Spiritually, they make themselves one and the same with a brand new womb-person who has not yet had the chance to sin or be sinned upon. And so theologically, they seek atonement for their own sins by “protecting the most innocent among us.” That kind of language is central to the anti-abortion movement. A call to protect the “least,” the “most vulnerable” and the “most innocent” among us.

Of course it may be natural to associate oneself with a newborn baby in some way, though the conclusions one draws from that are not a given. As Mark Twain once cynically opined: Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.

FD: Speaking of deep cynicism, as well as contradictory Conservative attitudes toward life, I was just reading an opinion piece in the New York Times that noted the entwinement of guns with Christianity in the United States. 

TR: Funny you mention the entanglement of gun and abortion extremists; I was just thinking about that very thing this morning. Of course the common and deeply disheartening observation is that in the United States, guns now have more rights than women. At the very least, gun companies and lobbies seem to. But beyond that, I think you’re absolutely right to identify an overlapping narcissism in the two fetishes: the cultish worship of embyros and guns. When you listen to gun extremists, they’re often wrapped up in dark fantasies about justifiably shooting people to death for threatening their families, and specifically children. To many  of them, it seems, the gun is not just an implement of sport, hunt, and deterrence, but also a magic wand of righteous death, protecting the fetuses and newborns through whom they find cleansing and rebirth. It all seems connected, even if every anti-abortion extremist isn’t a gun rights extremist and vice versa. Fetishize the embryo; force women, including rape and incest victims, to bring tragic, dangerous, and unwanted pregnancies to term, even if it kills them; see yourself reborn in the birth of the new child; and then kill, kill, kill any and everyone who threatens the children that embody you. (Never mind that, on average, guns kill 5 children every day in America.) A blood-soaked death and rebirth cycle of coat hangers and AR-15s.  

FD: I agree. That entanglement of gun/abortion extremism and narcissism points towards a masculine narcissism at work, and reflects the political rhetoric that has dominated the American right, especially of late. Many Christian conservatives, Trumpers, and Replacement Conspiracy theorists come together around fear of the American male being under serious threat. Trump and many of his followers and allies have simultaneously stoked and responded to these fears by means of their hyper-masculine rhetoric. As U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) has expressed it, the progressive left is trying to “deconstruct” the American male. That mis-use of the term deconstruction is both hilarious and probably vaguely leftover from the late 20th century panic that the progressive left was trying to empty out language and life of all meaning via critical theory, Jacque Derrida, and deconstruction.

Pro Life Guns Defend - Prolife - Sticker | TeePublicBut then someone might say: What about female anti-abortion extremists? How could women perform masculinity? There are a lot of ways to talk about the performance of gender, from Judith Butler to Ru Paul’s Drag Race (which is, not coincidentally in my opinion, experiencing a lot of popularity right now). There are many recent examinations of masculine rhetoric and American politics. This 1993 piece by Carol Cohn[1] about gender performance in the security industry is foundational. Since then, the phenomenon has exploded (pun intended) as the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration did so much to foster the connection between masculinity and U.S. patriotism and power through the post-9/11 War on Terror. These performances of masculinity are distinctly American, as any John Wayne or James Dean movie demonstrates (or even Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider). 

I still have a sticker on my desk from the D.C. Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. It says “Keep your Mittens Off our Kittens: Pussies Against Trump.” And it occurs to me that the sticker might be relevant to the recent Supreme Court decision. True, they’re not putting their hands on women’s genitalia, but what Trump’s vaginal grabbing and anti-abortion extremists (and the Supreme Court majority opinion) have in common is that they are controlling women via their genitalia/reproductive organs. These aren’t just random pussy grabs. They are urgent expressions of American masculinity that perceives itself as under threat.

So then the question is, how does that idea of American masculinity sync with the hyper-Christianity tied up in anti-abortion and, to a lesser extent, gun extremists?

TR: Modern American evangelicalism is very much wrapped up in hyper masculinity. The turn of the 21st century was a heyday for masculine Evangelical groups like The Promise Keepers (est. 1990), which set the tone for today’s movement. And no surprise, their brand of masculine Christianity includes a restrictive and subservient vision of femininity. It got so bad that the #MeToo movement quickly spun off a #ChurchToo sister movement. Just recently, evangelical women are finally seeing some success in pushing back against patriarchal abuse in the top ranks of Southern Baptist Convention, getting a secret list of serial sexual abusers released after years of massive cover up. And of course all of it hearkens back to the muscular Christianity of late Victorianism.

We face a simmering brew of narcissistic fetishes and toxic masculinity, with the affected embracing their “appropriate” gender roles: women as supportive, obedient breeders; men as righteous death dealers; and both of them consecrated through the magic of embryonic rebirth.

[1] Carol Cohn, “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War,” in Miram Cooke and Angela Woollecott, eds, Gendering War Talk (Princeton University Press, 1993), 227–46.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com.  Jennifer Ballengee does not have a website, but you are in her thoughts and prayers.