Were You Part of Your Mother?
Kingma (Elselijn)
Source: Mind (In Press, 18 December 2019)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. Is the mammalian embryo/fetus a part of the organism that gestates it?
  2. According to the containment view, the fetus is not a part of, but merely contained within or surrounded by, the gestating organism. According to the parthood view, the fetus is a part of the gestating organism.
  3. This paper proceeds in two stages.
    1. First, I argue that the containment view is the received view; that it is generally assumed without good reason; and that it needs substantial support if it is to be taken seriously.
    2. Second, I argue that the parthood view derives considerable support from a range of biological and physiological considerations.
  4. I tentatively conclude in favour of the parthood view, and end by identifying some of the interesting further questions it raises.

General Notes


RIP Lecture Abstract2
RIP Lecture Notes8
  1. Introduction
    • Two options for the relation between the Gravida (Maternal Organism) and the Foster (Fetus):-
      1. The Foster is part of the Gravida
      2. The Container Model
    • Audience Straw poll – a couple of votes either way, but most sat on the fence!
    • Marsupials are excluded from discussion – so don’t ask “what about kangaroos9?” – but all placental mammals are implicitly considered.
    • Distinguish persons10 from organisms11. Here we’re talking about organisms.
    • The Foster is vague, both as to:-
      → when it comes into existence
      → what its spatial boundaries are – does it include the placenta and other apparatus?
  2. The Container Model
    • The Container Model is culturally dominant.
      1. Ultrasound scans are routinely described as “baby’s first picture”.
      2. Progress of pregnancy – “at two weeks your baby is a little ball of cells”.
      3. Photos of the fetus – as in Life Magazine – are of the “astronaut in space” format, with the gravida airbrushed out of the picture.
      4. The fetus is actually purple, but is photoshopped as white.
    • Philosophers: Widely assume the Container Model:-
      1. “Like a Tub of Yogurt in the Fridge”
        "Smith (Barry) & Brogaard (Berit) - Sixteen Days", p. 74
      2. “An organizational unity that is not a part of its host
        "Oderberg (David) - The Metaphysical Status of the Embryo: Some Arguments Revisited", p. 266
      3. “Not merely a part of some other thing”
        "Howsepian (Avak Albert) - Four queries concerning the metaphysics of early human embryogenesis", p. 152
      4. Animalists12: believe we are organisms and were once foetuses, without considering whether there are any interesting questions about having an animal inside another animal.
      5. Maximality: “No cat is part of another cat”
        "Hawley (Katherine) - How Things Persist", p. 166
      6. Assumed in medical ethics.
    • Arguments for the Container Model: Kingma has trawled the literature and only found two13:-
      1. The Intuitive Argument ("Howsepian (Avak Albert) - Four queries concerning the metaphysics of early human embryogenesis")
        • P1: Fosters are Human
        • P2: No Human is part of another human
        • P3: Gravidae are Human
        • C: Fosters can’t be part of Gravidae
        Form OK; also goes through with “mouse” rather than “human”. So:-
        • Agree P3.
        • P1 is disputed: people have different views as to when / whether Fosters become human. But you could “fix” this premise.
        • P2: can’t overgeneralise from your own case; maybe part of what it is to be human is autonomy; but it all depends what you pack into the term “human”. This is basically an empirical question whether Fosters are part of other humans. That’s if we’ve fixed it that Fosters are human. So, P2 begs the question.
        Alternatively (again agreeing P3)
        • Fix P2 – just agree that – whatever humans are – humans can’t be part of other humans.
        • Then P1 seems to beg the question.
        So this argument fails – it either begs the question in P1 or P2, unless you can come up with independent support for them. People equivocate about what they mean by “human” in these two premises. Conclusion: can’t do armchair physiology – have to actually think about what it is for one organism to be part of another.
      2. The Topological Argument ("Smith (Barry) & Brogaard (Berit) - Sixteen Days")
        • The Foster is like a Tennant in a Niche.
        • A Niche is a part of reality into which an object fits and into and out of which it can move. Eg. Fish in an aquarium.
        • But isn’t it obvious that we can’t move14 Fosters in and out of their niches?
        • Complete external boundary; no topological connection. Response: No clear external boundaries; No separation – stalk morphology; Hallmark of topological connection.
        • Fosters don’t float like fish in an aquarium – they have an umbilical cord which grows out of the Foster and into the placenta, which itself grows straight into the uterine wall. So, it’s simply false that there’s no topological connection.
        • There is eventually a separation – at birth. If I chop off my finger, there’s a boundary created, but not beforehand. That’s why women occasionally bleed to death post-partum as the placenta is really joined to the uterus, not separated by membranes.
        • So, Kingma concludes that if Smith & Brogaard applied their criteria consistently, they would conclude that the Foster is part of the Gravida.
  3. Arguments for Fetal Parthood: Part-Whole Model – The Organism
    1. Metaphysics: ignore this, in favour of …
    2. Philosophy of Biology
      • The problem of biological individuality: no consensus! Organisms are messy15, especially when we look at fungi or strawberries.
      • Don’t defend any particular account, but consider recurrent criteria that give insights into what is a part.
      • Strategy: if it looks like a part, it’s a part!
    3. So, Organisms:-
      • Are physiologically autonomous & maintain homeostasis
        1. Internally, the environment has to be maintained within fine parameters to avoid death; but, externally organisms can accommodate a wide variety of environments.
        2. The Foster is regulated as part of the Gravida and dependent on it: only after birth does is regulate kidney-function, breathing etc. All of which prior to birth were performed or regulated by the larger organism. This is why birth is a risky business as there are babies that are fine in the womb but can’t perform these functions on their own.
        3. Part of the internal environment – embedded in the uterine wall.
        4. Of course, the Foster has some degree of physiological autonomy, but this is universal in the biological world. The liver does, and every cell does.
      • Have Metabolic and Functional Organisation
        1. Metabolic Integration: one metabolic system and active metabolic facilitation. The Gravida is actively involved. The Foster is not a parasite. The Gravida is set up to do this and makes adjustments in numerous ways (heart rate, hormones, …)
        2. Functional Integration: The Foster performs a reproductive function in that it realises the Gravida’s reproductive function. Some women – especially in pre-modern societies – die during pregnancy or as a result of giving birth. But survival / fitness16 trade-off is normal. Stags and their antlers, rutting. Only extreme conflict between the Foster and the Gravida is pathological – eg. pre-eclampsia17. Testicles18. Distinguish functional integration from complete alignment.
      • Fosters Are Immunologically Tolerated & Facilitated
        1. We’re referred to19 Pradeu (2012) & Howes (2007)
        2. Rejection of the Foster is pathological, just like an auto-immune disease.
      • Topological Continuity; discussed earlier
        1. Stalk-topology
        2. Placenta & Umbilical Cord
        3. In Uterine Wall, not Uterus
        4. No Membranous Separation
        5. Direct Cell-cell Connection / Integration in One Tissue
    4. Whole-Part Model: Conclusion
      • The Foster certainly looks and acts like a part, but …
      • Raises questions about the delineation of organisms: how do we delineate between generations?
      • Helpful to think of other examples (strawberry plants, fungi). New strawberry plants are initially clearly connected to the parent plant, but can become self-standing (though this is subject to debate).
  4. Objections to the Part-Whole Model
    1. There was nothing in favour of the Fetal Container Model, but there was at least a case to be made for the Part-Whole Model. So, objections that always come up …
    2. Genetic Difference20: Response – organisms are not genetically uniform:-
      1. DNA-less cells (erythrocytes21, skin)
      2. Microchaemerism22: Fetal-maternal & Twin-twin transfer. Pregnant women usually pick up fetal cells during pregnancy, which remain in their bodies for decades.
      3. Macro-chaemerism: Kidney donation; blastocyst fusion23. In the latter case, two blastocysts (of non-identical twins) fuse non-pathologically24 – for all she knows this might be true of her – so that some organs are formed from one blastocyst and the others, or the skin, are formed from the other. It’d be bonkers to think that such cases weren’t each a (single) organism.
      4. Genetic essentialism is a bad view (supported only by journals like The Economist that report really badly on science).
    3. Fosters have a future of their own – viability & separability: Two versions:-
      1. Modal25: can become separate. After a certain time, the Foster can separate and be separately viable, so it’s not a part. Confuses a disposition with its realisation (fragile <> broken). So, while it can separate, it’s not actually separate until we separate it, so it’s perfectly possible for it to be a part before that.
      2. Will become separate. Response is firstly similar to that above. Mortal <> dead. I will certainly die, but that doesn’t make me dead now. So, the fact that the foster will separate doesn’t make it separate now. Ask not if but when. Also, organisms lose stuff all the time. So we can’t have it that cells that will leave26 the organism were never part of the organism.
    4. Moral Relevance27
      1. Ethics should not dictate metaphysics.
      2. Many parts differ in their moral relevance. Compare hair, kidney, sperm, egg … etc. All agree that a foster is a morally special and interesting part.
    5. Other Questions
      1. Surrogacy
      2. IVF
      3. Conjoined Twins
      Ignore these for now. Stick to the normal case – pregnancy – first. Understand this, rather than thinking that abnormal cases – conjoined twins28 – should determine our metaphysical views.
  5. Conclusion & Implications
    1. Fetal-Container Model is devoid of support. Important as this is so widely assumed and asserted. Evidence is required.
    2. A case can be made for the Part-Whole Model, though Kingma admits it could be made stronger, but it’s currently the best candidate.
    3. Possible Ethical and Legal Consequences: No direct inferences from metaphysics to ethics; nothing Kingma has said guarantees any moral claims; but …
      1. Legal & Moral Presupposition of Individual Organisms. More to it than just abortion. Pregnant women: how much they owe their foetuses if they are going to bring them into existence. Surrogate pregnancies and how we construe a surrogate relationship. Examples:-
        • Autonomy, self-determination
        • Constraints against doing harm to others
      2. How, if at all, applicable to pregnancy? All our legal and ethical judgements presuppose that there are individual organisms and individual bodies who have independent existences, which others mostly don’t interfere with, and if they do there’s something to discuss! If the Part-Whole theory is true, this is a presupposition that is just false; a mistake – an artefact of not thinking about pregnancy. How to proceed if humans aren’t in possession of their own bodies, aren’t physically distinct and don’t normally stand in a relationship of non-interference. You might have to rewrite the lot for pregnancy. Kingma’s team has a separate paper29 in which they are working all that out.
      3. Also, fewer inferences licenced. People will make a claim that Fosters are human, and then infer lots of things therefrom. For example:-
        • Foster is HUMAN; therefore it has a right to x
        • But this inference depends on whether the right to x presupposes individual bodies / lives, etc.
        • Everything that follows from such presuppositions might need some serious re-evaluation in the light of the metaphysical facts.
        • Some of us already realised this, but (the Part-Whole Model) makes the case stronger.
    4. Possible Metaphysical Consequences:
      1. Implications for:-
        • When do we begin?
        • How many (human) entities are there? How many are right here30? She doesn’t think anything is clinched here (she says)
      2. Methodology:-
        • Questions are not necessarily inter-related; It might be the case that the question whether the Fetus is part of the Gravida is related to the question when we begin or how many human entities there are. It all depends on the further assumptions.
        • Think of the assumption “no Human Organism (HO) can be part of another HO”. Then this assumption – combined with a Part-Whole claim – shows that Fosters aren’t HOs. At this point there are two options31:-
          Either accept consequent
          Or reject assumption
        • Kingma supposes that there are many assumptions in metaphysics that might come under serious pressure if combined with this view that Fosters are part of the Gravida.
    5. Persons
      • No consequences without further assumptions relating persons to organisms. Many views. If persons are non-material minds then the Foster being part of the Gravida tells us nothing about whether the Foster’s non-material mind is part of the Gravida’s non-material mind.
      • Exception, Animalism32. Animalists (allegedly) don’t make any distinction between organisms and persons. We are organisms. Also committed to the view that we were foetuses. So,
        → P1: We are Organisms
        → P2: We were Fetuses
        → P3: Part-Whole Claim
        → C: We were Part of our Mother
        Very interesting, and
      • Raises the question what is the relationship to one’s offspring, to one’s part. Does my Foster-part that becomes a baby continue to be part of me? Sets up a very different picture of personal identity.
      • Massively counterintuitive? Kingma claims not to deal with intuitions. People send her material:
          Later I look with wonder at my mushy middle and at my child, amazed that this yowling flailing thing, so completely different from me, was there inside. part of me.
          Young, 198433, emphasis added by Kingma.
        Almost everyone who reads that treats it as metaphor (Young is a phenomenologist), but for an animalist – if the Part-Whole Theory is true – this could just be literal.
      • Take:-
          [a] woman may be utterly devastated by the thought of a child, a bit of herself, put out for adoption and never seen or heard of again.
          "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - A Defense of Abortion", 1971, p. 166, emphasis added by Kingma
        Thomson, who’s not a phenomenologist, and who in this paper makes the famous “violinist attached to your kidney” analogy of abortion, the use of one’s body by another.
      • And this isn’t a recent phenomenon either, take
          She longs to fold to her maternal breast
          part of herself, yet to herself unknown
          → Barbault, 1790s, emphasis added by Kingma
      • So, there is certainly scope for taking seriously these views, not just from their metaphysical arguments, but it’s interesting that they map onto statements that appear metaphorical, but may not be metaphorical at all.



KCL Lecture Notes


Birkbeck Lecture Notes
  1. Introductory
    • Kingma’s talk was sufficiently similar to the other two talks to be not worth commenting on in addition, except for the occasional variation or emphasis.
    • Kingma showed remarkable enthusiasm given the number of times she must have delivered the talk. The first slide showed “Milan” – well somewhere in Italy – I think.
    • There were maybe 15 people in the audience – including my former supervisor Jenifer Hornsby. A straw poll was taken and most were committed one way or another, about 50-5034, though Jen abstained. We subsequently learnt that this was for mereological35 reasons. Having one individual being part of another individual doesn’t jive well with standard mereology (as worked out by Peter Simons and others). Standard mereology may need revision!
  2. Talk – Variations Only
    • The provenance and context of the claim – from "Hawley (Katherine) - How Things Persist", p. 166 – that “No cat is part of another cat” was explained (so preventing me from making a comment to that effect). It is in the context of the “too many cats36” problem, Tib and Tibbles and the like. It seems that Kingma had “been for a beer with” Katherine Hawley, who had not even considered the case of a pregnant cat37 (despite having been pregnant herself).
    • In addition to items by Young and Thomson previously noted, a trawl of the literature for philosophers explicitly or implicitly supportive of for the Part-Whole model had revealed a passing reference on p. 67 of "Mellor (D.H.) - Micro-composition".
        Why does giving birth shrink a mother’s surface to exclude her now-detached child instead of extending it to continue to include the child?
    • Kangaroos and their joeys – while excluded from this discussion – do fit the “niche” variant of the Container Model, as the joey can hop in and out. See other footnotes where I’d queried whether the earlier (ie. pre-33-day) development of joey had been placental, or something analogous.
    • There’s a question how much of the gestational apparatus should count as part of the Foster. Kingma is undecided, but inclines towards a maximal approach, including the placenta.
    • The claim that the Foster has a life-cycle of its own doesn’t bar it from being a part. Various organisms – starfish, sea anemones and strawberry plants, for instance – fission or emit a part that becomes a daughter and will then have a life-cycle of its own.
    • Eggs are part of the mother – else what are they?
    • Surrogacy and IVF are relevant to the discussion insofar as they help determine time the Foster starts to be part of the Gravida.
  3. Questions & Answers
    • Question 1:
      • The fetus experiences many things in utero, including learning to recognise its mother’s voice. The mother doesn’t learn to recognise her own voice. Is this a problem? The questioner had voted for the Part-Whole model.
      • Response:-
        1. The Part-Whole model is of one individual being part of another individual.
        2. In any case, cognitive experiences are irrelevant to the model which applies equally to all placental mammals.
    • Question 2:
      • Given breast-feeding and the like, could an infant be considered to continue as a part of the mother after birth?
      • Response: Kingma had some sympathy with this idea without actually accepting it. Personally, I think this muddies the waters and makes parthood in this context into a façon de parler.
    • Question 3:
      • My Question. Had Kingma considered whether the situation might be considered as two individuals – the fetus and the Gravida – sharing parts, these parts being the placenta and other gestatory apparatus, including the umbilical cord. I agreed that Conjoined Twins per se should be left to one side until the much more common general situation was resolved. However, Conjoined Twins are at least a prima facie case of individuals sharing parts, so what we want to say in this unusual case may shed light on the more general non-pathological case.
      • Response:-
        1. The point was basically accepted. Kingma has assigned the question of Conjoined Twins to a post-doc. I said this was a bit disappointing as I’d hoped to research the topic myself. She encouraged me to continue to do so.
        2. However, there still needed to be a principled reason to deny parthood with respect to Foster and Gravida, which I agree.
    • Question 4:
      • Is this a feminist project? Or something along those lines. By a senior academic who’d written a book on Aristotle.
      • Response: No. It’s a metaphysical project that has no clear ethical, social or political implications without further assumptions.
    • Question 538:
      • The questioner asked whether Gilles Deleuze’s ideas might help reduce the degree of separation between organisms. She referred to a – supposedly well-known – image of a human being, a tree and a tick. I know nothing about Deleuze – nor – by the sound of things – did Kingma, so the discussion was all rather surreal39.
      • Response: Kingma took it all very literally and pointed out that humans, ticks and trees have different life-cycles – a fact that doubtless hadn’t escaped Deleuze.
    • Question 6:
      • Jenifer Hornsby made a doubtless important point about the relation between the developing and developed organism, which had to be repeated and re-explained a couple of times. Developing is part of coming to be, and we cannot say of something that it is developing using the name of the developed thing until that thing has in fact developed. So – I suppose – you cannot refer to the fetus in the ultrasound image as – your baby – as it isn’t, yet, a baby. Jen differs from G.E.M. Anscombe on this.
      • I think there was a later remark about the difference between spatial containment and mereological containment.
      • Response: Kingma encouraged Jen to drop her a line on the matter.
    • Question 7:
      • How does all this metaphysics affect the mother’s duty towards the fetus?
      • Response:
        1. This question seemed to have touched a raw nerve, and I see that there’s a sub-project at Southampton run by Fiona Woollard that investigates the pressures on pregnant women to act in certain ways for the benefit of their Fosters and infants.
        2. Kingma was at pains to point out that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect container’. Everything the mother does affects her fetus in one way or another – including stressing about what she should or shouldn’t do in order to provide that impossible perfect environment.
        3. My own view is that all this is orthogonal to the metaphysical questions so the same answer would apply whether the Foster is deemed a part or a free-standing individual on ‘life-support’. It’s agreed that both Foster and Gravida impact on one another in so many ways. That said, it can’t be right for a mother to deliver her baby with fetal alcohol syndrome or addicted to heroin. The impossibility of perfection doesn’t give licence to do whatever we please.
        4. My notes suggest that – subsidiary to this question – was the statement that “it’s not the issue whether the fetus is an organism, but whether one organism can be part of another organism”. Kingma has no settled position on this40.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Footnote 9: Footnote 13: Footnote 14: Footnote 15: Footnote 16: Footnote 17: Footnote 18: Footnote 19: Footnote 20: Footnote 21: Footnote 22: Footnote 23: Footnote 24: Footnote 25: Footnote 26: Footnote 27: Footnote 28: Footnote 29: Footnote 30: Footnote 31: Footnote 33: Footnote 34: Footnote 36: Footnote 37: Footnote 38: Footnote 39: Footnote 40:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

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