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Spring 2024


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Arni of human born cover

History of Science

Of Human Born: Fetal Lives, 1800–1950

Caroline Arni

Translated by Kate Sturge

368 pp

6 black and white illus.

Published: 2024

6 x 9



ISBN: 9781942130895

At a time when the becoming of a human being in a woman’s body has, once again, become a fraught issue—from abortion debates and surrogacy controversies to prenatal diagnoses and assessments of fetal risk—Of Human Born presents the largely unknown history of how the human sciences came to imagine the unborn in terms of “life before birth.”

Caroline Arni shows how these sciences created the concept of “fetal life” by way of experimenting on animals, pregnant women, and newborns; how they worried about the influence of the expectant mother’s living conditions; and how they lingered on the question of the beginnings of human subjectivity. Such were the concerns of physiologists, pediatricians, psychologists, and psychoanalysts as they advanced the novel discipline of embryology while, at the same time, grappling with age-old questions about the coming-into-being of a human person. Of Human Born thus draws attention to the fundamental way in which modern approaches to the unborn have been intertwined with the configuration of “the human” in the age of scientific empiricism.

Arni revises the narrative that the “modern embryo” is quintessentially an embryo disembedded from the pregnant woman’s body. On the contrary, she argues that the concept of fetal life cannot be separated from its dependency on the maternal organism, countering the rhetorical discourses that have fueled the recent rollback of abortion rights in the United States.

“A breathtakingly beautiful meditation on how ‘the unborn’ was imagined and understood in a prior era.” —Dagmar Herzog

“Arni’s Of Human Born is an important and highly innovative study of the origins of the scientific studies of the possible influence of events during pregnancy, especially maternal stress and trauma, on the development of the future child. Based on extensive historical research and beautifully written, this groundbreaking study shows that the development of a radically novel scientific understanding of prenatal life in the nineteenth century favored the rise of new scientific concepts in other areas of life sciences and medicine.” —Ilana Löwy, author of Tangled Diagnoses: Prenatal Testing, Women, and Risk

“A fascinating history. Engaging deeply with the position of the developing fetus on the border between no longer and not yet, Arni gives a thrilling account of the conceptual construction of prenatal life.” —Nick Hopwood, author of Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

“A breathtakingly beautiful meditation on how ‘the unborn’ was imagined and understood in a prior era. A model of ingenious history-telling, Caroline Arni’s book shows us ways of conceptualizing human-life-in-the-making that have so very much to teach us in our present-day predicaments as well.” —Dagmar Herzog, author of Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe