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Around the Network, Body Politics, Essays, Justice

PT 16.4 Guest Editorial: Political Theologies of the Surveilled Womb? (Erin Runions)

The last week of March 2015 saw a downturn in reproductive and sexual justice in the U.S. The Indiana General Assembly approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT people and to opt out of providing health insurance for abortions.

The last week of March 2015 saw a downturn in reproductive and sexual justice in the U.S. The Indiana General Assembly approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT people and to opt out of providing health insurance for abortions. Several days later Judge Elizabeth Hurley—appointed by Indiana Governor Mike Pence—sentenced an Indian American woman, Purvi Patel, to twenty years in prison after a miscarriage, on the charges of feticide and neglect of a dependent.[1] For the moment, conservative theopolitics has prevailed in Indiana.

One  biblical text, featuring surveillance and the womb, emerges as a site for  reflection. Religion writer David Van Biema has noticed  that both pro-lifers and gay rights activists frequently cite Psalm 139. It is the Psalm of  surveillance—everywhere the Psalmist goes, God is there. Both groups quote the line: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (vv. 13-14). These verses are read as evidence of God’s love for LGBT people and of the personhood of the fetus. In the pro-life movement, the psalm has further come to be associated with ultrasounds. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention runs the Psalm 139 Project, which provides ultrasound machines for pregnancy support centers. The conviction is that if women see an ultrasound image of their child they are less likely to abort it.[2] In both kinds of citation, surveillance is central and the woman behind the womb is peripheral.

As a shared proof text, Psalm 139 provide the means through which  to trace continuities and divergences in progressive and conservative theopolitics. As it turns out, the LGBT movement uses the Psalm to give weight to a more familiar political and theological subjectivity, whereas the pro-life movement ironically eviscerates the traditional theological relationship between God and the soul and replaces it with machine-assisted human surveillance. Both interpretations can be critiqued, yet when read together they ask us to consider how the theological shape of political subjectivity connects rights discourse to surveillance in ways that especially affect women of color, low income women, LGBT people, and other profiled peoples (e.g. non-white, non-affluent, religious, or immigrant).

Jeremy Bentham’s citation of Psalm 139 might serve as something of a measure against which to map the ways that political subjectivity is spatialized in relation to surveillance.  Psalm 139 appears as the epigraph to his outline for the panopticon:

Thou art about my Path and about my Bed: and spiest out all my ways. If  I say, peradeventure the Darkness shall cover me, then shall my Night be turned into Day. Even there also shall thy hand lead me; and they right hand shall hold me.[3]

While (atheist) Bentham says no more about it, the epigraph draws an obvious analogy between the omniscience of the Deity and the perceived omniscience of the panopticon’s central tower.  The fiction of a transparent self who will be motivated by surveillance to compliance—necessary in Bentham’s calculation of pain or pleasure in strategies of reform[4]—is a political fantasy modeled on transcendent knowledge. The biblical epigraph suggests that perhaps Bentham’s view of the process of reform folds in and forgets the theological view of divine omniscience. In a sense, the self learns to look in on itself, as if it were godlike.

LGBT citations of Psalm 139 also assume a transparent self. The Psalm is frequently cited to assure people in the process of coming out: they do not need to come out to God, because God already knows them from the womb. This interpretation spatializes identity as interior, fixed, transparent, and accepted as is, by God.[5] The interiorized, knowable political subject is therefore deserving of rights, which are predicated both on God’s creation and on the unchanging nature of the subject. In many ways, this view makes manifest a standard liberal understanding of subjectivity, even as it foregrounds the way that the idea of God still operates as a grounding principle in some rights discourse.

While there is understandable affective power and comfort in the LGBT use of the Psalm, several critiques might be offered.  First, this view tacitly approves of surveillance as a way of producing security, which can only contribute to the raced and classed criminalization of abortion, as well as other social  ills like racial profiling and  the prison industrial complex. Second, the womb only appears as the vessel for the identity known by God; the woman of whom the womb is a part is erased from the picture. While this logic may follow that of the Psalm itself, it should be interrogated in contemporary contexts. Third, as Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini have argued, such an approach to identity and rights is too constrictively based on notions of genetics (I was born this way), immutability (I cannot change who I am),  and,  in this case, God (being born this way was intended by a creator). Identities can and do change, and as Jakobsen and Pellegrini argue, there is a dangerous history of predicating identity on genetics (or divine intention); such thinking has produced exclusion, racism, and genocide.[6]

In contrast, the Psalm 139 Project spatializes subjectivity and identity somewhat differently. Richard Land, the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC, has said that the ultrasound is a window into the womb.[7] The interiority that is surveilled in ultrasound is not a woman’s soul or a stable identity, but the fetus. What pro-life advocates seek to see, protect, and give rights is not an interiorized identity, but biological life, made human by the watching God. Surveillance mediates the fantasy of pure life, facilitated by the womb. In theory, ultrasounds produces political passion for innocent human life, untouched by the vicissitudes of living. It is almost a nostalgic hope for the prelapsarian. To be sure, the ultrasound experience is meant to work spiritually and affectively on women to give them agency—but only insofar as they preserve fetuses.  As feminists have long been saying, when ultrasound imaging is interpreted in a particular way, the fetus becomes “separate and autonomous from the pregnant woman.” Thus the fetus, not the woman, becomes the bearer of rights on the basis of ultrasound.[8]

The innocence of this untainted biological life intensifies any potential harm to it, so that any harm appears as crime, especially if connected with the woman carrying the fetus. The fantasy of pure life requires the potential for punishment of the woman, who is both the one looking and the one surveilled. The woman becomes responsible not only for the preservation of the fantasy, but also for her own criminalization, made seemingly worse because she is the one looking.  The Psalm’s panoptic gaze is twice magnified.  The simultaneous intensification of surveillance and idealization of the fetus has the negative effect of turning women into the “sinister sovereign” to borrow a line from Penelope Deutscher.[9] As sovereign, a woman becomes an easy target for accusations of criminality. One might pause to wonder if pregnant women are scapegoated for other substantive forms of sovereign harm and criminality, less easy to surveil.

Somewhat ironically, however, viewers of the ultrasound take the place of God, who is at least temporarily erased from the equation. The womb is surveilled by means of a machine. The machine proves what scripture says, that God has knit in the womb a little human, the equivalent of a fully formed political agent (the equivalent of the psalmist at least, or maybe a future Einstein). The political agency of the viewer is elevated to the position of God; but this  simulacral Godlike political subjectivity is dependent on a machine. This is a strange theology and strange political subjectivity. God is replaced by the viewer, whose vision is—almost posthumanly—mediated by machine, while the soul, the psalmist, and the woman are eclipsed by a fetus. A  post-deist, post-soul, posthuman political subjectivity emerges. Rights are not conferred on an identity-based understanding of transparent political subjectivity, but rather they are based on being seen and the possibility of being harmed.

Without wanting to concur with its originating fiction about the fetus, I would argue that this alternate shape of political subjectivity points to a number of ways in which the more usual understanding could be questioned. Might a post-diest, post-soul theology provide a new way to think about granting rights, no longer based on notions of interior identity and divine creation? What difference would it make if surveillance began with the assumption of purity, or if precarity became a basis for conferring rights? Could political subjectivity be reimagined in ways not dependent on deliberate or forgotten notions of a transcendent, surveillant God (here Spinoza might be helpful), or on glorified wombs which are detached from the (vilified) women from whom they cannot be separated?

Finally, political theology ought to take a serious look at what drives the need for surveillance. If  surveillance is born, in the context of precarity, of a demand for physical, financial, or emotional security (via God or the state), how can that precarity be alleviated? If the womb is the easiest or only thing people feel they can control, clearly systemic changes must be made. It is a travesty that those with the least security bear the brunt of a dysfunctional system. If we want to see reproductive and sexual justice, multiple levels of intervention will be needed, including, I hope, new modes of political theological praxis.


Erin Runions is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College. Her most recent book is The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (Fordham University Press, 2014). erin.runions@pomona.edu


[1]Emily Bazelon. “Purvi Patel Could Be Just the Beginning,” New York Times Magazine, April 1, 2015,  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/magazine/purvi-patel-could-be-just-the-beginning.html?_r=0 (accessed May 12, 2015). Although this was the first conviction in the U.S. of feticide, many other arrests of  pregnant women—often women of color or low income white women— have been made for potentially harming a fetus, see  Lynn M. Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin. “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States 19873-2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 38.2 (2013): 299-343.

[2] David Van Biema, “One Psalm, Two Causes, Two Meanings,” USA Today, March 28, 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-03-28/psalm-139-anti-abortion-gay-lesbian/53836158/1(accessed May 12, 2015). A recent study shows there is very little correlation between viewing an ultrasound and maintaining a pregnancy, see Mary Gatter, Katrina Kimport, Diana Greene Foster, Tracy A. Weitz, and Ushma D. Upadhyay, “Relationship Between Ultrasound Viewing and Proceeding to Abortion.” Obstetrics & Gynecology 123.1 (2014): 81-87.

[3]  Jeremy Bentham, “Outline of the Plan of Construction of a Panopticon Penitentiary House,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843 [1790]), vol. 11, p.96. For commentary see David Lyon, The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (Cambridge UK, 1994), 212.

[4] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843 [1780]), vol 1.

[5] e.g. http://www.createdgay.com/positive/psalm/psalm139.html; http://whosoever.org/v2i5/truout.html; http://revjanetedwards.com/fearfully-and-wonderfully-made/.

[6] Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini,  Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 91-97.

[7] Dwayne Hastings and Erin Curry Roach, “A Lifesaving Window to the Womb: The Psalm 139 Project,” SBC Life, January 2006, http://www.sbclife.net/Articles/2006/01/sla1 (accessed May 12, 2015).

[8]Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, “Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction,” Feminist Studies 13.2  (1987):  263-292 (271); see also Janelle S. Taylor, The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram: Technology, Consumption and the Politics of Reproduction (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

[9] Penelope Deutscher, “The Inversion of Exceptionality: Foucault, Agamben, and ‘Reproductive Rights.” South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 (2008): 55-70 (66).


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