Janelle Taylor
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008

Reviewed by: Lauren Fordyce, PhD

Janelle Taylor contributes to the growing field of feminist analyses of technoscience with her new book, The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram, which examines how obstetrical ultrasound images can be read as “texts,” including the ways in which they are interpreted and used, as well as their social and material outcomes for people’s lives. Taylor’s text makes an important addition to discussions of the changing status of the fetus in the contemporary United States, focusing on the movement of this technology (and subsequently fetal images) into both social and political realms. Grounded in ethnographic, multisited research both inside and outside medical clinics, Taylor’s text takes a close look at obstetrical ultrasound both as diagnostic and clinical tool as well as its move into popular culture.

The text is divided into seven chapters, with the first couple chapters focusing on the practice of obstetrical ultrasound, including a brief history of ultrasound within reproductive health care, and an analysis of the role of sonographers within this practice. This section is of particular importance to scholars of gender, medicine and labor, as her careful analysis of the gendered nature of obstetrical ultrasound practice, and its emphasis on both skill and “caring” in this “women’s” technical profession. Also of great importance in this section are the links, based on extensive ethnographic research and interviews with women sonographers, between ultrasound imaging and “pro-life” attitudes. While not all sonographers are political active in the abortion movement, Taylor makes some important arguments relating the practice of ultrasound in regards to this issue: “It may be especially important to ask such questions concerning sonographers, if we wish to understand how it is the fetishized ‘public’ fetus of the antiabortion movement emerges out of social practice” (42).

Another important contribution of this text to feminist analyses of technoscience and reproduction is her careful historical and contemporary analysis of maternal “bonding” in regards to fetal ultrasound images. Taylor’s work has important implications for contemporary political moves to require the viewing of ultrasound images before an abortion procedure, based on the idea that women faced with such “powerful” images of “unborn life” will bond and therefore decide against terminating a pregnancy. This text situates these discussions within their historical (and arguably flawed) positions. Building on the literature of maternal-infant bonding, she argues that this perspective “resembles nothing so much as a somewhat reconfigured version of the ‘doctrine of maternal impressions’” (102). Ultimately Taylor concludes that although the maternal bonding theory is persuasive, not because it is ground in strong science, but instead because it emerges out of a powerful discourse within the United States which links fetal images, via the maternal imagination, to the physical form and health of the fetus. The consequences being that this discourse decontextualizes women’s emotions regarding their pregnancy, and justifies efforts to control women’s behavior (106).

Taylor’s text also contributes to an important discussion of reproduction as consumption: “Not only do women engage in consumption during pregnancy, however, but consumption itself to a significant degree constitutes the experience of pregnancy, especially in its early stages” (126, emphasis in original). She argues that the fetus is constructed through these processes as both “commodity” and “person,” in that obstetrical ultrasound objectifies the fetus in ways that makes it available for pregnant women to possess and enjoy in new ways. The medical information (size, sex, position, heart rate, etc…) and its image, allow a fetus to be “consumed” by a pregnant woman, as well as imagined to have “exchange value” within certain contexts (135). Using interviews and participant observation with pregnant women collected during her research, Taylor demonstrates how the commodification of the fetus through ultrasound imaging also reflects intersecting ideologies of motherhood, medicine, race and class.

The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram is an important text for any scholars interested in feminist theory, medical anthropology, the anthropology of reproduction, and science studies. Although written to be read all together as an ethnographic text, Taylor also contends that much as a sonographer captures multiple views during an ultrasound exam, each chapter represents a different “slice” of the social world within which this technology is embedded, and thereby each chapter can be read singularly. Therefore this ethnography could be useful read in its entirety with students interested in gender and health, the anthropology of reproduction and/or contemporary studies of technoscience, yet the individual chapters will also serve to supplement any course readings on these subjects.

Lauren Fordyce, PhD is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina – Asheville, where she teaches courses on gender, medical anthropology, and globalization. Her research focuses on risk and reproduction among Haitian migrants living in South Florida. Her areas of interest include the anthropology of reproduction, medical anthropology, feminist anthropology and science and technology studies.

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