Monday, June 27th 2022

Passive metaphors of pregnancy, and what it means for abortion

I was on Facebook after the Supreme Court’s Roe decision. Bad idea, right? Yet it was more heartening than I expected; friends and acquaintances with whom I’d never discussed abortion were posting memes and thoughts about how enraged they were. There was shared grief, problem solving, organizing.

Then of course there were the comments.

Anti-abortion commenters were crowing below these posts about how great it was that now more deaths would be prevented… as though abortion does not save lives. The more I read, the more the wording got to me. One commenter on a high school friend’s post insisted that the fetus is “a separate person connected to your body. You can choose for your body but not for a separate little person.”

That’s the comment that pushed me over the edge.

I know anti-abortion people do not care about the truth of how abortion is necessary healthcare; this is not an information deficit issue but a power one. I want to point out though that the way we often teach and talk about pregnancy is part of what allows anti-abortion people to imagine this separateness between the parent and fetus, and to dehumanize and limit the rights of pregnant people.

As an example, in Dr. Rene Almeling’s book GUYnecology, she interviews a range of men about their understanding of pregnancy. Many of them began their descriptions with what is still a common framing: that the sperm is active, the egg passive (not accurate but that’s for another time). About half of the sample eventually arrived at an egalitarian description after some initial fumbling, but half were still staunch believers that the uterus is a “baby basket” or that “you come from your father.”

Many others have written of this problematic framing (most famously, perhaps, Dr. Emily Martin’s article “The Sperm and the Egg” and her book The Woman in the Body). There is also a longer conversation to be had here about the extent to which this framing comes from the expectations of normative white femininity and is therefore rooted in white supremacy (if ever there was a plug for my upcoming book, it’s this!). But today I want to explain the consequences.

When you see a uterus as, at best, a parking space for a car, it’s not just that you miss out on all the glorious, interconnected things that the uterus does in conversation with the parent’s brain, heart, lungs, ovaries, their stress hormones and other chemical signals… though you do. Trophoblasts, placentas, and eventually fetuses need biofeedback from the parent to receive information from the parent about the world outside – from the way the parent’s heart slows or races, how their breathing changes, what hormones they excrete. The reason extremely premature babies have a high death rate and tend to have a number of health issues is not that our external incubators in NICUs are not good. It’s that incubation only achieves the barest minimum of what a living, breathing, thinking, pregnant person does for a fetus. “Separation” is a myth.

The consequence beyond how we gloss over the science is that without understanding that interconnection you miss how much it means to be pregnant – by thinking of a uterus as a parking space you miss the costs of pregnancy. You miss the way autonomy is built into the system and how that system protects the parent over the fetus. You dehumanize the incubator.

Scientists used to think that undernourished pregnant people would put all available resource into the growth of their fetus, so any scrap of extra food went straight to the fetus – Professor Meredith Reiches at UMass-Boston calls this the “infant priority model.” We now know the pregnant person’s body does the opposite, and rather than beefing up a fetus extra calories go to that parent. The extra calories might become additional energy available for activity, they might become fat reserves, and in fact in natural fertility samples (people who do not use medical or barrier contraception) this extra energy does not make babies bigger but shortens the interval between births. It improves that parent’s chances for further reproductive success with more babies, rather than shunting more energy into a bigger baby so that individual baby has a stronger start.

The pregnant body does incredible things to provide resources and information to its fetus. And it also creates firm boundaries to ensure the fetus doesn’t overdo it and take more than it can give (which by the way, if you’ve been pregnant, you know is still a freaking lot). The idea of a baby basket, a parking space, an incubator, whatever passive metaphor you want to use breaks down when you know how pregnancy works. And it lays bare the terror of having to do all this work to care for a fetus when someone does not want to, and/or when something has gone wrong in the process (e.g., ectopic pregnancy, infection).

Again, I know anti-abortion people do not care about the truth. I also know a scientific justification for abortion is not necessary to support abortion – simple respect for every person’s bodily autonomy should actually be enough. But if we could change the metaphors – if we could talk differently about how pregnancy works and what it does and the role of the whole pregnant person – we at least wouldn’t be doing some of the work for them.


Almeling, R. (2020). Chapter 5: Sex, Sperm, and Fatherhood. GUYnecology: The Missing Science of Men’s Reproductive Health, University of California Press.

Martin, E. (1980). The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston, Beacon Press.

Martin, E. (1991). “The egg and the sperm: how science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles.” Signs 16(3): 485-501.

Reiches, M. (2019). “Reproductive Justice and the History of Prenatal Supplementation: Ethics, Birth Spacing, and the “Priority Infant” Model in The Gambia: Winner of the 2019 Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship.” Signs 45(1): 3-26.

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