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Abjection and mourning in the struggle over fetal remains


Should the remains of aborted fetuses be treated as human corpses or medical waste? How can feminists defend abortion rights without erasing the experiences of women who mourn fetal death or lending support to pro-life constructions of fetal personhood? To answer these questions, I trace the role of abjection and mourning in debates over fetal remains disposal regulations. Critiquing pro-life views of fetal personhood while challenging feminists to develop richer and more compelling accounts of fetal remains, I argue that embracing the ambiguity and diversity of pregnant bodies can strengthen rather than undermine reproductive autonomy. I conceptualize reproductive autonomy relationally, contending that it entails the pregnant subject’s authority to construct as well as to interpret her lived body, including the fetus. Additionally, because the embodied self is inextricable from social context, reproductive autonomy also requires community support. To support these claims, I develop an account of pregnant bodies as ontologically multiple and advocate embracing abjection rather than suppressing it. Finally, I object to fetal remains regulations because they inscribe fetal grievability into the law.

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Thank you to Lawrie Balfour, Stephen White, Denise Walsh, Murad Idris, Jen Rubenstein, Rachel Potter, Charlee Tidrick, and Dustin Greenwalt for their feedback on various drafts of this article. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their perceptive suggestions and constructive criticism. Finally, thank you to the CPT editorial team for an efficient and professional review process, with special thanks to Jemima Repo and Samuel Chambers for their editorial guidance.

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Correspondence to Brittany R. Leach.

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Leach, B.R. Abjection and mourning in the struggle over fetal remains. Contemp Polit Theory 20, 141–164 (2021).

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  • abjection
  • mourning
  • fetal remains
  • embodiment
  • abortion
  • feminist theory