Imagining Abortion: Foetal Personhood and Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks (2018)

In her paper, presented at the Representing Women’s Health conference’s “Speculative Fiction” panel, Jo Rodgers explores foetal personhood through feminist New Materialism. 

In her 2018 novel Red Clocks, Leni Zumas imagines a near-future USA which has experienced an escalation of abortion restriction, resulting in the passing of a “Personhood Amendment”, which makes abortion of all kinds illegal:

They closed the women’s health clinics that couldn’t afford mandated renovations. They prohibited second-trimester abortion. They required women to wait ten days before the procedure and to complete a lengthy online tutorial on fetal pain thresholds and celebrities whose mothers had planned to abort them. They started talking about this thing called the Personhood Amendment, which for years had been a fringe idea, a farce. (173)

This speculative scenario draws heavily on recent legislation in the contemporary USA, a new government introduces incremental changes in legislation, slowly eroding conditions for abortion provision until the law finally pronounces that fetuses must be considered people, making abortion illegal as a result. The fictional Personhood Amendment places the idea of the foetus’ personhood at the centre of abortion regulation, indicating that the needs of the pregnant person are secondary. Zumas’ reproductive dystopia is more restrictive than the current abortion laws in the USA: it outlaws abortion of all kinds. However, it is not far removed from reality. In recent years, legislators in various US states have repeatedly attempted to pass laws which assign the classification of personhood to foetuses. These proposals are usually unsuccessful, but Zumas extrapolates a scenario in which such legislation has been passed. By creating a dystopian space which has so much in common with the reality of abortion restriction, this novel provides a critical examination of legal abortion discourse and the use of foetal personhood around which argumentation centres.

Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks book cover

Zumas’ fictional Personhood Amendment seeks to protect the foetus from an aborting mother, buying into a binary view of abortion debates which uphold antagonistic oppositions of pro-life and pro-choice, and pit the rights of pregnant woman and foetus against one another. In order to provide an alternative framework, throughout the novel Zumas moves constantly between its multiple narrators, depicting women with a variety of views and experiences, who must all navigate reproductive politics and its significant impact on their lives. This structure allows Zumas to disrupt this binary way of thinking; by relating various intertwined narratives, she uses an approach to abortion storytelling which rejects reductive binaries centred on the problematic concept of personhood and instead envisages the pregnant woman and foetus as material beings existing within networks of people, animals, and environments.

The novel’s chapters move between five main female characters who each take on a different social role. Four of the characters’ narratives are explored under chapter titles which mark these roles: the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter and the Wife. These indicate one aspect of each character’s lives, however the chapters’ contents themselves confirm that they have individual complexities and nuance. Between each chapter, the narrative of a fifth character, a female polar explorer, is narrated without such a title. The novel follows the lives of these women, who are all impacted by and interact with the Personhood Amendment despite their differing roles. In addition to their own stories, each forms a part of the others’ stories, in ways which are often slowly revealed as the novel progresses. Whether these connections between these women are key to the plot or smaller connections which add detail to create fully formed characters, they pull together across the novel’s structure. Their interconnections and crossings are integral to how the text conceives of human life and personhood, so the form of the text produces its mode of engagement with abortion.

Zumas’ novel, published in 2018, comes at a time when US abortion discourse is centred on the idea of foetal personhood, with debates often focusing exclusively on how to define life in utero. Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP laws) and other increasingly restrictive abortion legislation is heavily influenced by supporters of the Personhood Movement, both in the general public but also in their elected legislators and politicians. In his article, ‘Beyond Abortion’, Jonathan F. Will identifies that the movement aims to revoke the right to abortion, but the strategy generally undertaken is a slow erosion rather than an outright ban: “Acknowledging the “personhood” of the preborn is thought to be an avenue toward establishing a framework that would achieve this goal [to prohibit abortion] without direct reference to abortion.” (578) By focusing on the foetus itself, the movement moves away from the difficulties attached to the term ‘abortion’, seeking instead to reframe the way we see life in utero.

Foetal personhood is a slippery term, especially in a legal sense. How we define a person changes in relation to national laws, state and local laws, legal standpoints, religious and personal beliefs, political outlook and moral position. There are many federal and state laws which use the personhood of a foetus to restrict abortion access, but here I will focus on the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalised some abortions. Despite the Supreme Court’s position of judicial responsibility, the Court evaded the question of whether or not the foetus is a person. Having stated that, “The Constitution does not define ‘person’ in so many words”, the document goes on to conclude that, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” (157-159) The decision on defining personhood appears to be a task with too much controversy even for the Supreme Court. The document notes that the fields of medicine, philosophy and theology provide no consensus, and therefore the justices consider this to be beyond the capabilities of the judicial system, concluding that, “It should be sufficient to note briefly the wide divergence of thinking on this most sensitive and difficult question.” (160) This suggests that the Supreme Court felt the need to satisfy groups on differing sides of the abortion debate, fearing that overstepping their role in defining life may cause further problems. By refusing to define the term “person”, the Court had to allow that it may be possible to consider the foetus as a person who would have as much right to constitutional protection as the pregnant woman. The law permitting legal abortion in the USA therefore has the conditions for its own potential undoing written into its very text.

This plays into the centralization of a view of the foetus which is divorced from the realities of pregnancy, which Katie Gentile refers to as the fetishization of the foetus. She proposes that legal focus on the foetus and debates over its personhood, its imagined present and future, in turn dismisses the pregnant person’s personhood. She considers scenarios in which women have been prosecuted for their actions which caused or could have caused miscarriage, despite the fact that the women in question did not know that they were pregnant:

Reprofuturity casts all female bodies primarily by their assumed potential to become pregnant and the criminal justice system is in sync with that evaluation. The female body ceases to exist in any legitimate, judicially recognized form, replaced by that of a fantasy of a future, even if it is not a future desired by the woman. […] Fetal personhood denies women the “right to bodily sovereignty” while casting fetuses as martyrs, victims killed by the hostile maternal environment. (36-38)

Gentile observes that legal discourse around protecting foetuses from damage prior to birth focuses so much on the personhood of the foetus that the personhood of the mother is essentially erased by a “fantasy of the future”. She uses the term “reprofuturity” in reference to the fact that women are expected by the law to behave as if they assume themselves to be always already pregnant.

Viewing pregnancy and abortion through a feminist new materialist framework allows us to consider human bodies as integrated within a wider environment of life, moving away from the fetishization of the foetus. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost propose that, “While new materialists’ conceptualization of materialization is not anthropocentric, it does not even privilege human bodies. There is increasing agreement here that all bodies, including those of animals (and perhaps certain machines, too), evince certain capacities for agency.” (20) This decentralisation of human life is key for a new materialist understanding of pregnancy. This acknowledgment that assigning the classification ‘human’ should not convey additional value to the life in question reframes an understanding of the foetus away from the binary debate of whether or not the foetus is a person. An non-anthropocentric understanding does not seek to re-define, but denies that such a definition even matters.

Another key new materialist concept for a reframing of abortion is Stacy Alaimo’s trans-corporeality which she defines as ‘the time-space where human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from “nature” or “environment”’. (238) The idea of ‘trans’ within a trans-corporeal understanding of bodies considers that lives, bodies or entities do have some distinction from one another, but recognises connection and movement between them. This does not conflate bodies into one mass of life, but emphasises their inseparable connectivity. Alaimo’s trans-corporeality gives us the opportunity to think “across” the environment of the pregnant body and foetus, as connected but not conflated. A new materialist perspective recognises the ‘fleshy’ materiality of the pregnancy, giving credence to the “needs, claims, and actions” of the pregnant person’s body. (238) The pregnancy creates a new area in the network of the body, but it does not follow that the good of the whole body-network must be sacrificed in order to support the continuation of that new constituent. While theorisations of pregnancy that centralise foetal personhood insist that we treat the foetus as a separate human being, a trans-corporeal framework gives us an alternative method of understanding the foetus. No longer a theoretical person, it has “material fleshiness” in its location in the pregnant body, forming a new trans-corporeal relationship which rejects anthropocentric hierarchies.

This understanding of human bodies in dynamic networks with one another, as well as within themselves, can be seen in Zumas’ web of female characters, which she uses to highlight the complexities of women’s lives beyond their assigned roles. It may seem reductive to suggest that a novel which presents the lives of five different women has maternity at its core. However, it is the characters’ interaction with motherhood which allows Zumas to clarify each characters’ essential complexity. The idea of motherhood is something which features in all of the women’s lives in different capacities, drawing their network towards a central point, but not meeting in one core identifying feature. Zumas shows each woman choosing to identify in their own way with the notion of motherhood, whether that is to reject the status of mother which their legal system seeks to force upon them, or to find their own way to interact with this part of their identity. In this way, the novel challenges a perspective on abortion which centres foetal personhood, and instead acknowledges the right of every woman to interact with maternity and its impact on her body in her own way. As Susan Bordo states, the prioritisation of foetal personhood does not allow for this. She writes that “the current terms of the abortion debate – as a contest between fetal claims to personhood and women’s right to choose – are limited and misleading. […] [The] current battle over reproductive control emerges as an assault on the personhood of women.” (72) By demonstrating differing female responses and interactions with motherhood, the focus of Zumas’ novel remains the personhood and rights of the female characters rather than the Personhood Amendment itself and the ideals it represents.

Teenage Mattie discovers she is pregnant, and does not want to be. She is adopted herself and does not want to put her own child up for adoption, so her chapters follow her pursuit of an illegal abortion. She visits the Mender, Gin, for a natural abortifacient, and she attempts to travel to Canada where abortion is legal, but both these attempts are thwarted. With the help of her teacher, she eventually has an illegal abortion, safely and successfully. Gin, the Mender, is the local witch doctor. Although she lives in a forest cabin in isolation from the community, she provides alternative essential services, including abortions, STD treatments and fertility advice. She is Mattie’s biological mother; having become pregnant as a teenager, she gave Mattie up for adoption. She does not share this information with Mattie during their meeting to discuss an abortion. Gin is arrested before she can perform Mattie’s procedure, as she is falsely accused of poisoning her married lover, Lola, in an attempted abortion.

The one-sided knowledge of the genetic and emotional connections between these women has a significant impact on their interaction during their meeting. On her arrival, Mattie tells Gin, ‘I need the termination herbs’. Gin reframes this statement, asking, “You’re pregnant and don’t want to be?” (152). Mattie’s use of the word “termination” seems to be an attempt to avoid the word “abortion”, distancing the teenager from her pregnancy. Gin’s question does not negate Mattie’s choice, but rather clarifies her request. She focuses on Mattie’s state as pregnant and what she wants, rather than on the foetus or the procedure itself. This is a linguistic rebellion against her society in which “fertilized eggs are now classified as persons” (183). This rejection of society’s laws forms part of Gin’s position in the novel; living in the forest, Gin might be perceived as dividing herself from the rest of society. However, a new materialist perspective such as in Vicki Kirby’s work highlights the artificiality of the nature/culture divide. Not only does Gin play a vital role in providing gynaecological advice and treatment to the town’s citizens, but she even directs another character to pursue a PCOS diagnosis (45); this indicates that not only does she perform an important social function, but additionally she does not support the idea of an artificial separation between her natural healing and more supposedly civilized forms of medicine. Additionally, Zumas uses the novel’s introduction to Gin to establish the novel’s networked approach to lives. Gin rejects the idea that she lives “in the middle of nothing” in her forest cabin, but insisting, “trees are not nothing. Nor are cats, goats, chickens, owls, foxes […] and souls fled from their mortal castings. Alone human-wise” (14).  This situates her in a non-anthropocentric framework, connecting human, animal and even supernatural life. Gin’s position, then, allows us to view Mattie’s pregnancy and abortion as part of this wider web of lives.

Gin’s role as biological mother, however, causes her to delay Mattie’s abortion, in order to give herself time to emotionally grapple with the event. While she does not deny Mattie abortion access, she needs space to consider “the idea of reaching into a body she made to unmake a future body” (158). This hesitation, based on her biological relationship to this “future body”, shows Gin giving herself the opportunity to react emotionally without burdening Mattie with her concerns. Unlike the mandated waiting periods currently enforced by some US states which suggest that every abortion patient needs to be provided with time to reflect on their decision, Gin’s waiting period is for herself, suggesting that abortion’s emotional implications are also felt by those who perform them, not only the patients.

Zumas presents further detail on Gin’s own pregnancy and her perspective on abortion. Gin remembers, “Terminations were lawful then, but the mender wanted to know how it felt to grow a human, with her own blood and minerals, in her own red clock” (158). Gin’s actions can be understood in the light of a networked view of abortion and of the lives involved, particularly when considering Karen Barad’s consideration of the concept of “matter”. Barad writes that, “All bodies, not merely “human” bodies, come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity – its performativity. This is true not only of the surface or contours of the body but also of the body in the fullness of its physicality, including the very “atoms” of its being.” (141) Gin feels the “intra-activity” of the genetic link between herself and the “future body” of the foetus. This pregnancy matters to her personally, but she simultaneously understands the foetus to be matter, made up of “blood and minerals”. Zumas does not try to homogenise Gin’s view into a simplistic view of abortion, but rather expresses that genetic and emotional connection to a foetus complicates but does not disqualify the need for abortion.

By moving away from a theorised version of the foetus and instead focusing on the material realities of the foetus’s existence and the pregnant experience, I propose we can better understand abortion and its wider contexts. An understanding of the pregnant body as a network, as well as within wider social and natural networks, recognises that abortion does not exist in a vacuum. Viewing abortion in a contextualised way, as Zumas does in Red Clocks, provides an alternative for the legal framework which centralises foetal personhood, creating an inclusive rather than exclusive approach to understanding abortion and reproductive rights.


Works Cited

Alaimo, Stacy, ‘Trans-Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethic Space of Nature’, in Material Feminisms, ed. by Stacy Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), pp. 237–64

Barad, Karen, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, in Material Feminisms, ed. by Stacy Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), pp. 120–54

Bordo, Susan, ‘Are Mothers Persons? Reproductive Rights and the Politics of Subject-Ivity’, in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley ; University of California Press, 1993), pp. 71–97

Coole, Diana H., and Samantha Frost, ‘Introduction to the New Materialisms’, in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. by Diana H. Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 1–43

Gentile, Katie, ‘Using Queer and Psychoanalytic Times to Explore the Troubling Temporalities of Fetal Personhood’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 16.1 (2015), 33–39

Jonathan F. Will, ‘Beyond Abortion: Why the Personhood Movement Implicates Reproductive Choice’, American Journal of Law and Medicine, 39 (2013), 573–696

Roe v. Wade, 410, 1973, U.S. 113, 113–78 <> [accessed 5 November 2019]

Zumas, Leni, Red Clocks (London: The Borough Press, 2018)


About the Author

Jo Rodgers is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research investigates the representation of abortion in American near-future reproductive rights dystopias written in the 21st century, and fiction’s potential for reframing understandings of abortion.


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