Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

March 31, 2011

Using Their Weapons Against Them? – Not So Good When the Weapon is Women’s Bodies

by @ 8:24 PM. Filed under Autonomy, Child-Rearing, General, Healthcare Politics, Personhood, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Theory, Women's Issues

I’m sorry to have to say it, but I’m not totally diggin’ this:

Sierra Club: Fetus Toxins

It’s from the Sierra Club’s new ad campaign “to remind our representatives who they are actually hurting when they attack the EPA.” I’m entirely in agreement with the goal of the campaign, and even with the message of this ad (“gutting emissions regulations results in greater release of toxins, which can do their worst damage during fetal development”). But I have reservations about its methods.

The obvious function of the ad, of course, is that it plays to the right-wing’s proclaimed concern for fetuses to the exclusion of all other health issues (including, of course, pre-natal care, gynecology, infant and child care, and other such irrelevancies). And the fact that the imagery plays so obviously and shamelessly off of the right wing’s fetish for pregnant bellies – in this case to prod them to do something to improve people’s health, rather than take away their rights to healthcare, is an amusing irony. But it’s just those points that leave me uncomfortable.

First, there’s something in a way defeatist, or at least pessimistic, about the focus of the campaign: because the GOP only cares about unborn fetuses, we have to couch every issue in terms of its impact on fetuses. (“Wear your seatbelt – so your fetus doesn’t get hurt!” “Support solar power – so your fetus will use less oil!” “Don’t spread deadly poisons in the environment – because it might hurt some of the fetuses of the less than 1% of the population that’s pregnant at any given time!”) But surrendering every issue to the religious right’s fetus-fetish takes everyone else in the population out of the picture. Mercury, dioxin, and other poisons in the environment hurt everyone. It matters that young children who have grown out of the right’s preferred age for adulation (i.e., they’ve been born already) are also vulnerable to developmental delays and all the other effects of environmental toxins; it matters that adults are crippled and killed by heavy metal poisoning; it matters that the women who are carrying these favored fetuses are also affected by the poisons they ingest – in addition to the fetuses that are the focus of concern in this campaign: these are the people who are hurt when the right wing attackes the EPA – why can’t the Sierra Club, of all people, say so? It may be true that the right only cares about fetuses (and then largely as tools for hurting women, who are their real obsession), but allowing them to forget everyone else is to forfeit the major part of the fight to them without contest. When progressives’ campaigns have the same focus, same tactics, and same blind spots as the reactionaries they are campaigning against, much is lost even if those campaigns succeed.

The second, and perhaps more striking, issue that arises for me from this ad is the imagery that is used. When I said it leaves everyone but the fetus out of the picture, I meant it literally. This ad replays in every detail one of the most common, and most offensive, tropes of anti-choice misogyny: the faceless pregnant woman reduced to nothing but her belly. (Can’t say “uterus“, you know!) You see it everywhere (and, as @ClinicEscort points out, particularly in stories about abortion): a woman’s body reduced to nothing but swollen boobs and swollen belly, or often just the belly – the face is always cut off, just out of the frame. The effect – and unquestionably the purpose – is to erase the woman from her own pregnancy. It’s fetus porn, with the woman dehumanized just as badly as, and in some ways even more fully than, in sexual porn (where at least you can often see the face). It’s the kind of misogynist metonymy that at least has come to be recognized (if not eliminated) in product advertising, but apparently still goes unremarked in issue or values advertising – even though its major function is to promote the value of dehumanizing women. That it does reflect and promote the right-wing vision of women goes without saying: women as pregnant vessels who are not even named or acknowledged, and certainly have no interests or needs that deserve to be addressed in their own right, could hardly be better illustrated than by photographs of them as exactly that, used in campaigns aimed at denigrating women’s interests in favor of the “interests” of an unborn fetus.

It’s infuriating to see progressive groups use such images and tactics. This goes beyond simply bowing to the reality of the  right’s indifference to women by finding another “hook” for an issue; this actively embraces and endorses its dehumanizing methods in order to use them for that other issue – exactly what the right wants. What I want is something better than this from nominal allies.

7 Responses to “Using Their Weapons Against Them? – Not So Good When the Weapon is Women’s Bodies”

  1. Alice Robertson Says:

    I think a few points are missed while lambasting the GOP. You are using a broad brush to paint a fallacious picture. Babies in the womb are the most vulnerable…they do not have mature immune systems. It may be good PR…yet, I would have to ask where were they when vaccines had mercury…or the preservatives in them? Autism is finally being studied by the CDC….and well it should be because something environmental is involved. But so far most major studies were financed by BigPharma…that makes the evidence open to skepticism. I share this because I am a conservative (please do not read Republican into that…I cannot defend either party completely) who cares for children both in and out of the womb.

    Yet, you seem to promote a myth….the GOP does not consider infants in the womb a type of idol. You write from a skewed liberal ideology, yet, liberals defend Obamacare. If Obamacare is all that and a bag of chips 🙂 won’t it eventually take care of all the medical needs of humans that you claim the GOP and defunding is crushing? Aren’t 70 million people now qualifying for Medicaid? Can’t women and their children get care via the government dollars that way? Maybe not as easily, but it is free care? The wheels are already in motion to help cover everyone, so it seems you are trying to reinvent the wheel?

    Why shouldn’t the GOP be consistent in caring for these innocent children in the womb the liberals don’t seem to mind killing? Why state a false sense of altruism only for children who breathe upon delivery? Is this not a human rights issue? If one truly cares for women and children shouldn’t that caring carry over to the child in the womb?
    Alice Robertson´s last blog post ..AliceARobertson- @drpauldorio How refreshing! Of course- one of the hardest parts of teaching honesty is to admit our errors Gulp! http-postly-1UzKl

  2. Michael Says:

    You have two arguments you mention.

    1. That addressing the unborn, the left is admitting defeat to the right.

    I disagree on two levels. First, and foremost, the left is not admitting defeat, because the left also loves the unborn! The ideas that the left does not care for fetuses, considers them inhuman, and considers them expendable are FALSE. It’s just that we also happen to also value choice. The right loves to create this straw-man against us, and unfortunately, you are playing right into that tactic. We cannot admit defeat over something we have never been truly arguing over to begin with. Further, messages and images to promote that interpretation of our movement are positive and important to give to those who are unsure about their stance on choice. Remember, this is not a fight over whether abortion is wonderful; it’s a fight over whether it should be allowed or not.

    Secondly, to make an impact on a person who disagrees with you, you absolutely must phrase (or show) your argument in a way that, not only they will understand, but also that they care about. This ad shows that pollution affects the unborn, something that they may not have thought about before. It also plays off hypocrisy (which definitely can be dicey): how can you care so much about abortion if you are letting this contaminants affect the fetus?

    2. That the image of solely a swollen belly is insulting to women by robbing them of identity and denying their concerns.

    Honestly, I think this is a little over-reaction. This is only one image. I can see how if every image from the Sierra Club on this topic was the same, then maybe you’d have a point. However, isolating one ad out of the context of the whole debate is – well – fairly disingenuous too. People like to see the negative side to making an image faceless; however, there is an oddly positive side to it as well: she could be me/my partner/my mother. This is similar to racial issues with advertisements or for products themselves (e.g. black children gravitate towards black dolls). Obviously, there’s only so much you can do with an image; it can’t be racially (etc.) neutral. However, my stripping away a face that proclaims “I am this particular woman” it allows the picture to be any number of women.

    Secondly, similar to my point about your first issue, when targeting an audience, it’s best to go straight to the heart (or womb!) of the matter. Not that the details of the woman’s plight are superfluous, but for this particular message to be effective, it needs to shine through without getting into all the other debates which muddy the water. Sierra Club’s point with this ad is that pollution hurts fetuses, period. They are not in the advocacy business for choice, so they do not want to burden this rather simple message with the distractions that choice brings – important distractions though they are. If they do, the conversation becomes driven by the controversy, and their real point falls by the wayside.

    My final point addresses your arguments’ base: that this ad is directed at those who dislike abortion. While it certainly is no stretch to see that interpretation, remember that not everything that has to do with a fetus involves abortion. An ad encouraging singing to your womb is not an anti-choice ad. An ad for a neo-natal clinic involving birth is not an anti-choice ad. A public service announcement stating that you should not change the cat’s litter while pregnant is also not an attack on choice. In just those same veins, a targeted ad stating that pollution is harmful to an unborn baby/fetus is not an attack on choice. Neither is it making light of all the other important issues a pregnant woman faces. This is one ad; it can’t address everything.

    Safe travels!

  3. Michael Says:

    As a quick followup, I would like to point out that most right-wing people, I know at least, do not view women solely as pregnant vessels. They do not discount a woman’s health, choice, prosperity, etc; it’s just that they believe those things are outweighed by the baby, to varying degrees. Some are extreme, like you say, but many are much more moderate, preferring to allow abortion in many cases, just not simply for retro-active birth control. A similar, but opposite spectrum exists on the left.

  4. Kevin T. Keith Says:


    Thanks for writing.

    Regarding (1): I don’t mean that it’s wrong to show concern for fetuses. Only that it implicitly concedes the right’s obsession with fetuses to couch progressive arguments in the same terms. I guess the thing that strikes me here is that it’s so incongruous in this situation. Harm to fetuses is not the biggest concern in the issue of environmental pollution. Here they have reduced pollution to heavy-metal poisoning, and then reduced that to its effect on developing fetuses – an obvious pandering to one-issue right-wingers. Certainly we should emphasize harm to fetuses in issues that primarily consist of harm to fetuses; heavy metals affect children and adults, too, so reducing the issue to just one dimension caters to the people who don’t care about the other dimensions – just the thing progressives should oppose, not go along with.

    Regarding (2): I don’t think it’s an over-reaction. First, this is not just one image, it’s one of many. (See the ClinicEscort link for an eyeful.) Second, it’s not just ubiquitous, it’s deliberately dehumanizing of women. The faceless pregnant woman is a trope of the anti-choice right, and it’s not accidental. Using it in progressive campaigns is the worst kind of splitting.

    “Sierra Club’s point with this ad is that pollution hurts fetuses, period.” Well, that pretty much proves what I said in (1), right? And that’s the wrong point for a progressive group to be making. “They are not in the advocacy business for choice, so they do not want to burden this rather simple message with the distractions that choice brings” That’s splitting, again – throwing women to the wolves so we can save their fetuses, which is exactly what anti-choice is about. Saying that’s OK because you’re “not in the business of choice” is not just insensitive, it’s actively anti-progressive.

    It’s true that being pro-fetus is not being anti-choice, but the issue here is that they introduced fetuses as a way of addressing issues that only partially involve pregnancy, and did so by cutting everyone else out, including the pregnant woman. That is anti-choice. You’re right that one ad can’t address everything, but it can certainly avoid addressing the issue it is aimed at in a way that weakens the status of the very people used to create the imagery in the ad.

    Finally, re: right wingers and women – the de-humanization of women is precisely what the anti-choice campaign is about. Whether that’s a goal or a tactic is irrelevant, though it’s clearly more than a tactic. But women’s lives are nothing to them – literally nothing. There are bills that have passed in state legislatures right now making it illegal to provide abortion even to a dying woman; the Catholic bishops in the US have begun imposing exactly the same restriction on their hospitals without any recourse under law. The number of bills in the state and federal legislatures just in the past year striking all forms of contraception and reproductive healthcare for the poor, and even prohibiting them under private insurance, literally grows too fast to count.

    And, finally finally: believing that a fetus or fertilized egg outweighs a woman’s health, right of choice, and prosperity is extremist. And abortion is not “retroactive” birth control: birth control is what you do to prevent being forced into childbirth against your will – it happens before birth. Abortion could be considered “retroactive contraception” (since it occurs after conception), but it can best be regarded as just “having control of your own damn body”.
    Kevin T. Keith´s last blog post ..Our Rights Rest in the Hands of an Scatology- &amp Animal-Porn Director – Which is a Lucky Thing

  5. Beautylovin Says:

    You could certainly see your expertise in the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  6. Says:

    I have recently started a website, the information you provide on this site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work. “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” by Ayn Rand.

  7. Porn Movies Says:

Leave a Reply

Logged in as . Logout »

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge


Sufficient Scruples:



March 2011
« Feb   Apr »

Links & Feeds:

RSS 2.0

Comments RSS 2.0


Follow KTKeith on Twitter


Powered by WordPress

Get Firefox!

Theme copyright © 2002–2018Mike Little.

Ask the Ethicist!


White Papers:

Bioethics Links: