‘Sacralising the Foetus: The birth of the unborn person and the miscarried parent in the Anglophone world’ by Prof. Harish Naraindas

Prof. Harish Naraindas from Centre for the Study of Social systems, JNU presented his research entitled ‘Sacralising the Foetus: The birth of the unborn person and the miscarried parent in the Anglophone world’ at the Sociological Research Colloquium.

When: Friday, 10th November 2017 at 3:00 p.m.

Where: Seminar Room (First Floor), Department of Sociology, University of Delhi 


This paper begins with a description of a perinatal disposal in a funeral parlour in Melbourne. It delineates the preparing and viewing of the foetus/child, and the eulogy written by a perinatal funeral director who acts as the celebrant. It examines the eulogy and asks whether the structure and purport of the eulogy, as a rhetorical device, is an attempt to construct a biography of a child that never lived, and through it bring into being the ‘unborn person’? Or is the eulogy, which on closer scrutiny is largely a eulogy of the mother and her pregnancy, is the narrative making of miscarried parents through a biography of the unborn in the mother’s womb? If the dictum that it is a live child that gives birth to the status of being parents, then does an unborn child lead to the miscarriage of such a rite of passage? In the light of this, the paper speculates whether the contemporary making of the unborn person, through memorialisation and sacralisation, is a symptom of not merely the grief of loss but also a contemporary sign of acknowledging miscarriage, including abortion, by sacralising it. The paper then proceeds to situate this speculation by tracing, through the voice of the celebrant, the general form and evolution of perinatal bereavement and how the deceased perinate went from being hospital waste to a sacralised subject, and from being a dead foetus to an ‘unborn child’ with funerary rights. It then attempts to situate this seemingly Australian story within a larger canvas by moving between the American mid-west and the United Kingdom by examining three hospitals. It dwells on hospital institutions such as midwifery and the chaplaincy, which through secular and religious ritual, prepare the ‘unborn child’ on its disposal journey. It is through the material, linguistic and symbolic practices of midwives, chaplains and funeral directors (and others) that the contemporary perinate in the Anglo- American world becomes the person par excellence, unlike in India where it is marked by silence, or continues to be treated as hospital waste. This sacralising of the Anglo-American foetus appears to have resulted in the ‘unborn child’ to be the only ‘person’ in American history (2002) to have unconditional health care; the WHO to mandate a proper disposal if it is of twenty-two weeks’ gestation or 500 grams; and has led some Church of England priests to baptise it, resulting in the theologically interesting move of offering sacraments for the dead. 

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