"Unborn children" and what they represent
Common sense plus a rudimentary knowledge of biology will dictate that a first trimester fetus, much less the little shapeless masses of cells known as zygotes that the ant-stem cell research forces think they are protecting, are not "babies". I can understand the discomfort around later-term abortions, particularly of fetuses that look like babies and some that may even have half a shot of living outside the womb. For me, the jury is still out on late-term abortions in the moral sense, though I still think it's far more immoral to ask women to risk her health to avoid having one. But anti-abortion activists want us to believe, despite all evidence and despite the fact that they clearly don't believe it either, that a month-old fetus and a 5th grader are the same thing.
"Unborn children" is one of the greatest red herrings ever created, because it skirts uncomfortably close to some real truths. But more importantly, the phrase is properly ambigious and therefore perfect for grinding real discussion down to a halt. Different people view "unborn" in different ways, and few in a debate will tip their hat to what kind of meanings they ascribe to it, particularly not those who are using "unborn children" to hide an anti-women's rights agenda.
From a feminist perspective, at least this one's, "unborn" is a word that speaks of potential and possibility. One possibility of course is to actually put in the time and effort to turn the potential child into a real child. Another is to quit that process and take another path, a legitimate view if you see potential in the woman as her own human being instead of simply a uterus thwarting its destiny.
But my interest here is in the symbolic meanings of "unborn children" to the anti-feminists and anti-choice groups. And the communication breakdown between pro- and anti-choice people happens in the language of potential, destiny, and female willfullness. Oh yeah, and the male orientation of the regard for self-reliance, individuality, and free will.
It's no secret that throughout our history, women have been used as the ultimate cultural Other--a repository for all the opposite meanings of men's strivings so that men have that controast that helps provide meaning. It's hard for limited-imagination humans to imagine what Good is without a clear understanding of Evil for contrast. There are thousands of examples from history of humanity of women being assigned opposite traits from those that men strive for, but the contrast that I'm interested in for the purposes of the abortion debate is active/passive.
It is no coincidence that the push to restrict abortion rights and even the right to female-controlled contraception is escalating at the same time that our country seems to be in the grip of a near-mad desire to prove that we are the John Waynes of the world. Masculine assertiveness is just so much howling in the wind without female passivity, and the fight to push passivity on women has focused laser-like on abortion rights. Repealing abortion rights would be a victory for those who wish to reassert a binary view of male-active, female-passive because it would be a cultural declaration that even the most feminine of activities--pregnancy--is not an activity at all.
I've stated before that it's my belief that pro-lifers need to believe that it is sperm, not gestation, that makes a baby. It's an attempt to push us back to a time when women's bodies and reproductive capabilities were seen as mere tools used to create children belonging to men. Our language still reflects the old notion that men make babies and women just bear them, not just in the naming of children after their father but in just ordinary lexicon. Phrases like "bun in the oven" are metaphors--if women are incubators, the implied cook, the one who actually made the bun, is the father. Even the phrase "bear a child" is a passive term, like "bearing a storm" or "bearing a grudge"--it's something that happens to you from the outside and you just hang in.
But this perception of children as belonging to men and merely passing through women doesn't dominate the popular imagination as it used to. Really, it was toast once people began to understand the concept of DNA and how every person is 1/2 mom and 1/2 dad. Single motherhood, rising divorce rates, assisted reproductive technologies, and or course abortion and birth control have further unbuckled people's mind from thinking of pregnancy as something men do to women. Sex itself is not seen so much anymore as something men do to women either, not in our age of sex toys, oral sex, female orgasms and open homosexuality. On top of that, a cottage industry of advice has reinforced the notion that pregnancy is an activity undertaken by women--everything from advice to refrain from drinking alcohol and visiting your doctor once a month while pregnant to the growing variety of choices in actual child-bearing techniques.
Criminalizing abortion is hoped to reverse this trend and get people back into the habit of thinking of pregnancy as something men do to women, and reasserting the male-active/female-passive dichotomy again. It's a fairly straightforward notion--once a man does his thing and the woman is pregnant, she must simply live with it, i.e. bear it. No control, no assertion, no activity. An optionless woman is a passive woman. Considering how much of our character is staked on the current, conservative need to view America as the Big Man, Top Dog, etc., it will not do to have women at home quietly derailing that what men make in abortion clinics across the country.
And that's why the term "unborn child" is favored over "fetus". A fetus is a thing growing, being developed, under female control. An unborn child is a child already made and simply waiting to be born, for a woman's bearing time to be over.
I fear that abortion is soon to be criminalized all over again, and that in itself would be a tragedy. Worse, I fear what will happen when conservatives realize that criminalized abortion does not return us to those mythical times when men were Men and woman were vessels. For one thing, that was never entirely true--no matter strange restraints societies have put on women throughout history, never have they lost their wills completely. Banning abortion won't cause women to submit to passive roles, nor will it make men Manlier. It won't help our country dominate the world, or defeat a single terrorist. It won't stop the divorce rate or make single motherhood disappear. It won't do a damn thing to stop the crisis of masculinity, and I fear which of women's rights will be next on the chopping block in order to regain the mythical age of manly men.