The Foetal Condition

The Foetal Condition : A Sociology of Engendering and Abortion

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Abortion is a contentious issue in social life but it has rarely been subjected to careful scrutiny in the social sciences. While the legalization of abortion has brought it into the public domain, it still remains a sensitive topic in many cultures, often hidden from view and rarely spoken about, consigned to a shadowy existence. Drawing on reports gathered from hospital settings and in-depth interviews with women who have had abortions, Luc Boltanski sets out to explain the ambiguous status of this social practice. Abortion, he argues, has to remain in the shadows, for it reveals a contradiction at the heart of the social contract: the principle of the uniqueness of beings conflicts with the postulate of their replaceable nature, a postulate without which no society would achieve demographic renewal. This leads Boltanski to explore the way human beings are engendered and to analyze the symbolic constraints that preside over their entry into society. What makes a human being is not the foetus as such, ensconced within the body, but rather the process by which it is taken up symbolically in speech - that is, its symbolic adoption.
But this symbolic adoption presupposes the possibility of discriminating among embryos that are indistinguishable. For society, and sometimes for individuals, the arbitrary character of this discrimination is hard to tolerate. The contradiction is made bearable, Boltanski shows, by a grammatical categorization: the project foetus - adopted by its parents, who use speech to welcome the new being and give it a name - is juxtaposed to the tumoral foetus, an accidental embryo that will not be the object of a life-forming project. Bringing together grammar, narrations of life experience and an historical perspective, this highly original book sheds fresh light on a social phenomenon that is widely practised but poorly understood.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 448 pages
  • 150 x 232 x 32mm | 579.99g
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • English
  • Reprint
  • 0745647308
  • 9780745647302

Back cover copy

'An utterly original treatment of an interminablydiscussed issue. Combining anthropological reflection withinterviews, social theorizing with hospital reports, Boltanskiproduces an account that recasts the question of abortion, even asit cannot fail to annoy all sides in the currentdebate'
Nancy Fraser, The New School for Social Research

'The Foetal Condition is not a political intervention, it does not rehash for us the endless arguments for or againstabortion. Rather, it is about a far more startling topic: theconnection between abortion and the process of engendering, becoming a member of the human species, at once generic andparticular. Using a large range of anthropological evidence, Boltanski shows that societies have always practiced abortion, andthat the silences, prohibitions or tacit acceptation of abortiontouch on the troubling question of how societies define a"human being." This highly original book cannot fail tobecome a classic among anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and ethicists.'
Eva IIIouz, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Abortion is a contentious issue in social life but it has rarelybeen subjected to careful scrutiny in the social sciences. Whilethe legalization of abortion has brought in into the public domain, it still remains a sensitive topic in many cultures, often hiddenfrom view and rarely spoken about, consigned to a shadowyexistence.

Drawing on reports gathered from hospital settings and in-depthinterviews with women who have had abortions, Luc Boltanski setsout to explain the ambiguous status of this social practice.Abortion, he argues, has to remain in the shadows, for it reveals acontradiction at the heart of the social contract: the principle ofthe uniqueness of beings conflicts with the postulate of theirreplaceable nature, a postulate without which no society wouldachieve demographic renewal.

This leads Boltanski to explore the way human beings areengendered and to analyse the symbolic constraints that presideover their entry into society. What makes a human being is not thefoetus as such, ensconced within the body, but rather the processby which it is taken up symbolically in speech - that is, itssymbolic adoption. But this symbolic adoption presupposes thepossibility of discriminating among embryos that areindistinguishable. For society, and sometimes for individuals, thearbitrary character of this discrimination is hard to tolerate. Thecontradiction is made bearable by a grammatical categorization: the'authentic' foetus - adopted by its parents, whouse speech to welcome the new being and give it a name - isjuxtaposed with the 'tumoral' foetus, an accidentalembryo that will not be the object of a life-forming project.

Bringing together grammar, narrations of life experience and ahistorical perspective, this highly original book sheds fresh lighton a social phenomenon that is widely practiced but poorlyunderstood
show more

Table of contents

Introduction 1 1 he Anthropological Dimensions of Abortion 11 2 The Two Constraints on Engendering 39 3 Understandings 60 4 The Parental Project 90 5 Constructing Foetal Categories 125 6 The Justification of Abortion 158 7 The Experience of Abortion 193 Conclusion: Forgetting Abortion 233 Notes 251 Works Cited 299 Index 317
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Review quote

'An utterly original treatment of an interminably discussed issue. Combining anthropological reflection with interviews, social theorizing with hospital reports, Boltanski produces an account that recasts the question of abortion, even as it cannot fail to annoy all sides in the current debate.' Nancy Fraser, The New School for Social Research ' The Foetal Condition is not a political intervention, it does not rehash for us the endless arguments for or against abortion. Rather, it is about a far more startling topic: the connection between abortion and the process of engendering, becoming a member of the human species, at once generic and particular. Using a large range of anthropological evidence, Boltanski shows that societies have always practiced abortion, and that the silences, prohibitions or tacit acceptation of abortion touch on the troubling question of how societies define a "human being". This highly original book cannot fail to become a classic among anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and ethicists.' Eva Illouz, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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About Luc Boltanski

Luc Boltanski is professor of sociology at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales, Paris. His many books in English include, The New Spirit of Capitalism, On Critique and Love and Justice as Competences.
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