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Pregnancy – rethinking popular assumptions

A philosophical re-examination of pregnancy has challenged certain prevailing assumptions. This could have important consequences for some of the legal and moral issues that surround pregnancy.


Metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of reality and touches on concepts such as being and identity, has spent surprisingly little time examining the phenomenon of pregnancy. “Pregnancy hasn’t been completely ignored by philosophers,” notes BUMP (Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy) project principal investigator Elselijn Kingma, associate professor in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. “Aristotle and other ancient Greeks discussed pregnancy, albeit before modern science. And phenomenologists (who study structures of experience and consciousness) have addressed the human experience of pregnancy.” Nonetheless, metaphysical accounts of pregnancy remain few and far between. One possible reason, Kingma claims, is that philosophy has long been dominated by men. “Pregnancy may simply not have been seen as particularly salient or important,” she says. “Moreover, cultural depictions of pregnancy often obscure the ways in which the maternal organism and foetus are intertwined.” It is also notable that society tends to focus on the moral questions surrounding pregnancy, such as abortion, reproductive choices and maternal obligations. When doing so, suggests Kingma, there is a tendency to treat pregnancy as if it involves two wholly distinct individuals. “It is plausible that viewing future mothers as mere ‘foetal containers’ encourages a myopic focus on the status, rights and needs of the foetus, with a corresponding neglect of the status, rights and needs of the mother,” she adds.

Challenging prevalent assumptions

The European Research Council-funded BUMP project was launched to challenge these prevalent assumptions, and to force mainstream metaphysics to re-examine the ‘foetal container’ model. More broadly, the project team wanted to encourage new ways of thinking constructively and philosophically about the very nature of pregnancy. “Our aim was to develop a philosophically sophisticated and empirically informed account of pregnancy according to which the foetus is ‘part’ of, and not merely contained within, the mother,” explains Kingma. “We can then start the process of rewriting our legal, social and moral language so that it better accommodates the real nature of pregnancy.” The project drew on, and fed back into, accounts of organisms and individuality within the philosophy of biology, in order to address some of the most basic metaphysical questions about pregnancy (i.e. How are mother and foetus related? How many organisms exist during pregnancy?). A final step was investigating whether and how these findings about the metaphysics of pregnancy could be translated into moral and legal domains.

Changing societal perceptions

It is hoped that the BUMP project will positively impact how we as a society think about pregnancy. For example, the research has shown that it can be misleading to think about or represent the foetus in isolation from any maternal organism. “There will also be practical applications to come out of this research,” says Kingma. “We explored how a better understanding of the nature of pregnancy can inform reproductive technologies of the future, and improve our understanding of issues such as surrogacy.” Beyond researchers in relevant philosophical and scientific fields therefore, the project results should be of great interest to experts in the fields of ethics, policy and law. “Reconfigurations of the pregnant organism-offspring relation might radically alter how we think about the scope of choices open to pregnant women,” adds Kingma. “Expecting families may welcome an alternative way of thinking about the important and life-transforming process they are experiencing.” In fact, the project has already had an impact: Kingma was the only philosopher/ethicist consulted in the process of revising certain medical guidelines in the Netherlands. “This followed a case in which a midwife was struck off for attending several ‘risky’ home births, and where an article of mine was submitted as evidence in the successful defence,” notes Kingma. “We certainly hope that our research will prove similarly influential in other contexts and other countries in the coming years.”


BUMP, pregnancy, philosophy, metaphysics, pregnant, births, reproductive, surrogacy

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