The Body-as-Machine Metaphor and “Error” in Pregnancy


User manuals and owner’s manuals typically accompany technological products or services such as electronics, software, or cars; however, user manuals also exist for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive. The pregnancy-as-technology metaphor that appears throughout such manuals suggests that women’s bodies are a technology that women cannot know intuitively and for which they need instructions; that women are “owners” of bodies which would then be commodities or products by extension; and that women can and should consider themselves as separate from their bodies in order to understand and use the “system.”  This metaphor objectifies women and harms them by denying the humanity and uniqueness of each woman, as evidenced by recent legislation. In this paper, I will examine the body-as-machine metaphor in forms focused on women, examine how pregnancy manuals may reaffirm this metaphor, and examine nonviable pregnancies through the body-as-machine metaphor to show that this metaphor can harm women.


The Body-as-Technology Metaphor and an Examination of Pregnancy Manuals

The metaphor of body as technology has been analyzed much already. Michel Foucault writes that the “body as a machine” metaphor focuses on control and “optimization,” medicalizes women’s bodies, and operates in the name of “the responsibility they owed to the health of their children” and the wellbeing of society as a whole (139; 146-157). This metaphor can be applied to pregnant women, in particular, as pregnancy is often treated as a process subject to and working toward optimization. This focus on optimization is apparent in the existence of the many pregnancy guides in print or online, which often delve into minute details of lifestyle changes that can increase a baby’s health.

Before discussing the manuals, it is important to note the language used in the manuals and more widely in American discourse to describe women’s bodies. Emily Martin, in her analysis of biology textbooks’ treatment of menstruation, points to a tendency toward negative language to describe women’s bodies by indicating that a “system has gone awry, making products of no use, not to specification” (486). The intense focus on women’s reproductive capacity as a machine would lead one to believe that when a woman menstruates, “making products of no use,” she wastes time and space on something meaningless—the metaphor uses language that only credits women when they produce babies.  

Building on Martin’s work, Judy Z. Segal discusses the body-as-machine metaphor in a broader context as “a dominant metaphor of biomedicine,” and notes its assumption of mind-body dualism (121-122).  This dualism creates an exigence for owner’s manuals, which Marika Seikel analyzes at length in The Rhetoric of Pregnancy. Seikel writes, “The manual’s user is put in the awkward position of being both the system documented and the user of that system” (113). These ideas depend on each other—neither a user nor a system operates independently.  Moreover, users and systems interact within greater networks and because of factors beyond a single person. A system is created by a programmer, powered by something mechanical, managed by an administrator, and so forth. A developing pregnancy-as-network metaphor might help account for the many outside factors that can affect a woman’s experience with her pregnancy, and may help dispel some women’s feelings of isolation.

Seikel’s analysis of Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting comes from a technical communication perspective and concludes that the text may “indoctrinate” women to “discipline their own bodies” because the popular guide does not give women enough information to critically analyze the options before them; rather, it reads as instructions (9; 20). Seikel goes on to explain that manuals should ideally empower users. Women, after all, have turned to these books, and having read the information, should be better equipped to make choices about their wellbeing (34). Seikel’s text contributes much to the conversation around pregnancy manuals as a form of a technical communication within the body-as-machine metaphor; however, questions regarding serious problems during pregnancy are not within the scope of her text. I will investigate these questions later in this paper.

Another popular metaphor for pregnancy is body-as-container. This may seem quite different than the body-as-machine metaphor but it actually suggests body-as-hardware. If a woman’s actions during pregnancy fit into a user’s experience with software, the software runs on the hardware of the body. In an examination of Murkoff’s What to Expect and a Canadian booklet called Nine Months for Life, Eugenia Georges and Lisa M. Mitchell demonstrate a theme of body-as-container (189). This metaphor suggests less agency than the body-as-technology metaphor offers by depicting women as merely passive participants in pregnancy.  The body-as-container metaphor, in its worst form, may evacuate the woman as a user, and discuss pregnancy as a contribution to the social body, often controlled or managed by men.

This metaphor of body-as-container may be seen in terms rooted in biological processes, as women may consciously try to achieve pregnancy for months and it may not happen; certain bodily functions are beyond conscious control.  The physical limitations of the human body are also a limitation to the body-as-machine metaphor. Biological processes are not algorithmic, programmable, or necessarily predictable.  The outcome that the body-as-machine metaphor supposes in discourses of pregnancy is a pregnancy that comes to full term and that results in normal laborand ultimately, in a healthy baby.

Pregnancies That End Without a Baby

Abortion. Miscarriage. Termination. Murder. Loss. The language used to describe pregnancies that end without a baby is charged, socially constructed, and historically and culturally situated. “Recurrent miscarriages” were once called “habitual abortion” but this title has changed over time, presumably as the term “abortion” has a negative stigma (Dixon 52).  I would suggest that calling a miscarriage a “pregnancy loss” is more sensitive to women, as the term “miscarriages” suggests failure or error because of the prefix, “mis-.”  This idea of error comes in part from the stigmatized language of biology that taught that women’s bodies are only meant for reproduction, and that if a woman does not reproduce this is a fault (Martin 486).  Furthermore, this logic would suggest that the woman is at fault because she is the user of her body, and she may have made an error. But what happens when pregnancy cannot be achieved? Or when a pregnancy miscarries?  In the TED talk by Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman, the couple describes their painful experience with miscarriage and with the silence that surrounds the experience (n. pag).  The body-as-machine metaphor may be pressuring women into silence by delegitimizing their voices. The metaphor suggests to me a message such as, “You’re not a person, so you don’t grieve. You’re a machine. Run the program again.” This heartless messaging relies on the concept of user error to blame women and ask them to mask painful experiences that many women should be able to discuss openly without blame.

The taboo of miscarriage is only one example of the silencing of women’s voices in the face of a louder narrative against women’s bodies. In the present political environment, there have been attempts to rewrite expectations around pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother, specifically through legislation around ectopic pregnancies (Jacobson,  n. pag.). In 2011, Republican-sponsored legislation, passed by the 112th United States Congress but not by the Senate, became known as the “Let the Women Die Bill” because under this proposed law, any woman with an ectopic pregnancy would be legally required to continue the pregnancy, even if it threatened her life and would cause her to need expensive emergency surgery that could be avoided (Jacobson, n. pag.; Protect Life Act).

In an ectopic pregnancy, the fertilized egg attaches somewhere in the woman’s body beside the uterus, usually within the fallopian tubes or, more rarely, within the ovary or abdomen (Murkoff 542-543).  Ectopic pregnancies account for about two percent of all pregnancies, and current medical literature suggests that the pregnancy should be terminated, as it will not be viable (Murkoff 543).  Without treatment, the fertilized egg, as it grows, may cause the fallopian tube to rupture, necessitating emergency surgery for the woman (“Ectopic Pregnancy,” WebMD).  Forcing women toward experiences of tubal rupture relies on a body-as-container metaphor in which the container does not matter, and on a body-as-machine metaphor in which the user is not humanized. The preferential treatment of a fertilized egg over a woman uses flawed logic, potentially killing both the woman and the fetus in a misguided effort to save one. The lawmakers who would risk a woman’s life, even when the pregnancy is not viable, are committed to a damaging metaphor of woman-as-container which endangers women, and committed to a body-as-machine metaphor that suggests that women cannot be trusted to use and operate their own bodies.



In the body-as-machine metaphor, errors are problems that should be fixed, caused by user errors or system errorsbut circumstances of pregnancy loss or termination are not inherently errors. Whether or not a pregnancy ends with a medically necessary surgery, an elected termination, or naturally on its own, discussions of pregnancy should allow women to be in control of their bodies and as safe from danger as possible. Given the need for new discourses that give full voice to women, I suggest moving away from the body-as-machine metaphor, which uses language that diminishes and delegitimizes women’s experiences with pregnancy termination or loss by marginalizing and dehumanizing women.

Works Cited

Dixon, Kathleen Marie. “Minding the Uterus: C. T. Javert and Psychosomatic Abortion.” Body Talk: Rhetoric, Technology, Reproduction. Eds. Lay, Mary M., Laura J. Gurak, and Cynthia Myntti. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. 49-66. Print.

“Ectopic Pregnancy – Topic Overview.” WebMD. WebMD, 4 Jun. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <>

Foucault, Michel. “Right of Death and Power over Life.” The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1990. 135-159. Print.

Georges, Eugenia and Lisa M. Mitchell. “Baby Talk: The Rhetorical Production of Maternal Selves.” Body Talk: Rhetoric, Technology, Reproduction. Eds. Lay, Mary M., Laura J. Gurak, and Cynthia Myntti. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. 184-203. Print.

Griscom, Rufus and Alisa Volkman. “Let’s Talk Parenting Taboos.” Online video. TED Women 2010. TED Conferences, Dec. 2010. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <

Jacobson, Jodi. “House Passes H.R. 358, the ‘Let Women Die’ Act of 2011.” RH Reality Check. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <

Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs 16.3 (1991): 485-501. Web of Science. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Murkoff, Heidi, and Sharon Mazel. What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Completely New and Revised.  4th Ed. New York: Workman Publishing, 2008. Print.

Protect Life Act, H.R. 358, 112th Cong. (2011). Web. <

Segal, Judy Z. “Values, Metaphors, and Health Policy.” Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. 115-132. Print.

Seikel, Marika. The Rhetoric of Pregnancy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.


RhetoricKatie Ancheta