Death Before Birth: Theorizing Pregnant Embodiment, Reproductive Autonomy, and the Politics of Abortion

Leach, Brittany, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Balfour, Lawrie, Politics, University of Virginia

Although feminist theorists increasingly conceptualize identity and autonomy in relational terms, the most common arguments for abortion rights in public discourse rely on appeals to individual rights. In this dissertation, I seek to develop a theory of reproductive autonomy that defends abortion rights from a relational perspective. I argue for a conception of reproductive autonomy that entails the authority of pregnant subjects in interpreting, constructing, and making decisions about their bodies; the support of their communities, which provides the material and symbolic resources that enables pregnant subjects’ agency; and efforts to transform communities through critical reflection and political action. Because “the” pregnant body is actually many different pregnant bodies with diverse experiences, and because pregnancy complicates distinctions between mind/body, self/other, and individual/community, I suggest that pregnant embodiment should be understood as ontologically multiple and fundamentally ambiguous. The substantive chapters then move thematically from the United States to the U.S.-Mexico border to transnational feminist networks. In Chapter 2, I explore the meaning of reproductive autonomy in the context of fetal remains disposal regulations by tracing the role of abjection and mourning in public debates over these laws. In Chapter 3, I juxtapose systemic medical neglect of pregnant women in U.S. immigration prisons with Garza v. Hargan, a court case in which undocumented minor Jane Doe sought to exercise her right to have an abortion, in order to show how the techniques of debilitation and paralegality smooth the potential tensions between pro-life and anti-immigrant discourses on the question of fetal citizenship. In Chapter 4, I seek alternatives which instantiate reproductive autonomy in highly oppressive contexts by reflecting on the feminist communities enacted by three guerilla abortion networks – the Jane Collective in Chicago, the consultoris autogestiti in Italy, and misoprostol abortion hotlines in Latin America – that provide safe illegal abortions where legal abortions are unavailable or inaccessible. By developing an account of reproductive autonomy and pregnant embodiment that embraces the ambiguity of boundaries between self/other and inside/outside the body and the body politic, I aim to provide a defense of abortion rights as freedom with others rather than freedom from others.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
reproductive autonomy, pregnant embodiment, abortion, feminist theory, ontology
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