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Framing the fetus in medical work: rituals and practices

  • Linguistics
  • Medicine
  • Political Science


What does it mean to investigate the fetus, and what might be the potential consequences? Although a number of feminists have engaged with the debate around the status of the fetus in terms of the possible implications for women, discussion of fetuses has been avoided by many feminists, in response to the politics around the abortion debate. However, there has recently been a move to explore the ways in which the meanings and significance of the fetus can be socially constructed. Set within a United Kingdom context, this paper focuses on two areas which are arguably changing perceptions of the fetus: the recent 'discovery' of fetal 'pain'; and the growing recognition of the fetus as a patient. One of the key concerns of those who support the autonomy of women is that any increasing discourse around the concept of fetal patienthood may promote the notion of fetal personhood, which in turn may affect the status of pregnant women. In exploring perceptions of the fetus, this article firstly cites some of the key policy documents and medical articles which were published during the 1990s, looking at apparent shifts in the ways in which the fetus is discussed in terms of pain and patienthood. It then explores how practitioners from different disciplines talked about fetal pain and patienthood in relation to the clinical setting. Although this paper does not provide conclusive evidence of a wholesale shift in terms of how the fetus is perceived by practitioners, it does point to subtle shifts occurring, which may or may not be significant. It is important to track such shifts closely, primarily because of the potential impact on women, but also for others involved, including practitioners. Such tracking needs to be set within specific cultural and policy contexts.

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