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My Foetus: Will women finally get the whole picture?

By Leslie Cannold - posted Wednesday, 14 July 2004

British filmmaker Julia's Black's documentary My Foetus won't screen in Australia until August 8, but debate has already begun about whether the film should be censored, and the impact it will have on abortion politics.

The film, made while Black was pregnant with her first child, reconsiders an abortion she had more than a decade earlier. It shows a four-week pregnant woman having a suction termination, as well as foetal remains at 10, 11 and 21 weeks gestation. The filmmaker claims, in an article in The Observer, to present both sides of the "reality" of abortion: balancing what she describes as "shocking, repulsive, and confrontational" images of aborted foetuses with the circumstances and emotions of the unhappily pregnant women.

There is no question in my mind that My Foetus should be screened. For one, it is an unprecedented opportunity for the public to see foetal-remains accompanied by accurate captions and commentary. For too long, the anti-choice movement has mislabelled late-gestation foetuses as ones aged 14-weeks or younger (the period, not coincidentally, when 95 per cent of Australian abortions take place). For too long, the anti-choice movement has used voice-overs in propaganda films like The Silent Scream (in which the ultrasonographic images used are so fuzzy and unclear as to be unrecognisable without narrative direction) to imply women who abort are heartless and cruel.


More importantly, pro-choice advocates have long seen the foetus as the property of the other side; accepting the anti-choice claim that conceding the foetus is human and alive means admitting that abortion is morally wrong and must be made illegal - again.

Yet, as foetal imagery becomes increasingly ubiquitous (who among us hasn't seen an ultrasound image or an anti-choice billboard?), this position has become increasingly politically risky. Black is right to feel that the pro-choice movement must reclaim the foetus, though I disagree with her assertion that the reason the movement has shied away in the past is the "repulsiveness" of foetal remains.

No, the real problem with focusing on the foetus is that it leaves women - literally - out of the picture. A typical foetal image is of a balled-up cosmonaut in a circular, disembodied capsule. It is rare for the line surrounding the foetus to even gesture at its reality as a woman's womb, little less to the geographical relationship of the capsule to the rest of the woman's body (is she sitting or standing? In which direction are her feet and face?)

More importantly than her body, a focus on the foetus leaves the woman's life out of the picture: her partnership status; her ability to parent well; her plans and ambitions for the future. Yet it precisely this context, and the way the woman approaches and makes her decision, that makes her choice comprehensible, and provides its moral texture and meaning.

The anti-choice movement knows this. That is why the "hard cases" - unwanted pregnancies resulting from incest and rape, or those that threaten a woman's life - split the movement in two. Because while such foetuses are as alive and human as any other, many anti-choice advocates refuse to condemn women who abort in such circumstances. Better than any other, these cases show it is our judgements about a woman's motives and intentions that determine our moral evaluation of her particular abortion, not any particular characteristic of the foetus. Sadly, experience shows such judgements to be harsher for strangers, and kinder for friends. Abortion clinic staff repeatedly report doing terminations for anti-choice protesters, only to find them - weeks later - back on the picket lines again.

As Black's film testifies, feeling bad about abortion (or, more precisely, feeling bad about finding oneself in the position of having to face the decision at all) is testament that our moral sensibilities are finely tuned, not that abortion is wrong. Most people who choose divorce, particularly if they have children, feel less than exultant about having to make that decision; yet few believe this proves the choice is wrong; or should be legally denied.


Black rarely spoke of her long-ago abortion. Few of the one in three women who will have an abortion in their lifetime do. She says she wants her film to both change that, and the laws that in both the UK and many Australian states that make abortion a doctor's prerogative; requiring women "to plead insanity to end an unwanted pregnancy."

It is a condescending anti-choice myth that women don't really understand the "reality" of abortion when they choose one, and that seeing foetal remains will - to quote anti-choice warhorse Margaret Tighe - "confront them" with the "truth." I also feel confident that women who've had abortions in the past are wise and mature enough to make their own choices, based on their individual needs and circumstances, about whether they tune in next month.

The response of the public will be harder to gauge. But there is no reason why, if Black has done her work well - ensuring both women and foetuses remain in the frame - the supporters of reproductive freedom have anything to fear.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 12 July 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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