Presenter: Catherine Mills (Centre for Human Bioethics, Monash University)

In recent years, a number of US states have adopted laws that require pregnant women to have an ultrasound examination, and be shown images of their fetus, prior to undergoing a pregnancy termination. While there is a growing critical literature on such laws, there has been little attempt in bioethics or philosophy to unpack one of the basic presumptions of them: that seeing one’s fetus changes the ways in which one might act in regards to it, including in terms of the (ethical) decision about whether to allow it to live or not. However, this presumption raises significant questions about the relation between visibility, emotion and ethics.

In addressing these questions, I first consider the theory of maternal bonding, its link to obstetric ultrasound, and its use in attempts to limit access to abortion. Second, I elaborate notions of maternal bonding in terms of recent philosophy of empathy, with particular reference to comments by moral sentimentalist, Michael Slote, on the relevance of empathy to the ethics of abortion. I show that there are numerous complexities to empathy in regards to a human fetus and in the politics of abortion. The approach I develop ultimately gives rise to a new account of the politics of emotion in relation to abortion – not in terms of grief and shame, but in those of a critical analysis of the (variable) mobilization of empathy and care.