Book Review: Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn by Barbara Duden

Disembodying Women cover, picture acquired from, Goodreads link to book can be found here

Barbara Duden is a German medical historian, specialising in the history of gender and of the body as a site for historical and critical exploration.  For Duden, the body of a woman is a hotly contentious site upon which a number of significant discourses are being played out in a constantly shifting battleground that brings together politics, social issues, medicine, and a plethora of other socio-political entities. Throughout  the course of her book, Disembodying Women, Duden explores the nature of pregnancy and how the experience of pregnancy has been transformed by the introduction of new imaging technologies such as ultrasound, X-ray, and the MRI machine.

I read this book in relation to a piece of university assessment I was writing in my second year about the impact that imaging technology had upon the experience of both pregnancy and motherhood, and found the sources and the arguments that Duden put forwards were interesting and, perhaps most importantly, challenging. Never before had I even considered that the ultrasound image could have revolutionised the experience of pregnancy, thus transforming itself beyond that of a merely medical image, and establishing itself firmly as something of a socio-cultural symbol. Suddenly, the image of the foetus in the womb is more than just a picture of a baby on a screen: it is a first glimpse into parenthood, a snapshot of life before birth, and a powerful tool for persuasion in political debates.[1] As highlighted by the photographs taken by Lennart Nilsson and printed on the cover of LIFE magazine, the image of the foetus in utero has far from transcended a merely medical significance and has, instead, taken on an entirely new symbolic meaning that I believe survives to this day.[2] Debates surrounding foetal rights, abortion, motherhood, and a host of other potent socio-political issues have drawn upon images of the foetus in order to argue their case, in some instances with both sides utilising similar tactics. As Duden correctly asserts, the foetus has become a powerful political tool, even if it has yet to assert agency of its own.

Overall, Disembodying Women was a useful source in informing my own historical enquiries, an important analysis of the foetus as a cultural symbol, and a pleasure to read. The points it raised sparked new questions and lines of enquiry, and the essay was a pleasure to write in the end as it became something that I was very passionate about researching. The writing of the female body within the framework of the history of medicine is still something that is very much being addressed, and Disembodying Women also addresses the place of the foetus within these debates, and the effect that imaging technology has had upon the understanding of the foetus, of the mother, and of society as a whole.

That’s all for now,



[1] Barbara Duden, Disembodying Pregnancy: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, (Hamburg, 1991)

[2] The 1965 landmark Lennart Nilsson photoshoot in question can be found  over at


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