BUMP: Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy (B1)
Kingma (Elselijn)
Source: Southampton University Website
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  1. Every single human is the product of a pregnancy: an approximately nine-month period during which a foetus develops within its mother’s body. Yet pregnancy has not been a traditional focus in philosophy. That is remarkable, for two reasons:
    1. First, because pregnancy presents fascinating philosophical problems: what, during the pregnancy, is the nature of the relationship between the foetus and the maternal organism? What is the relationship between the pregnant organism and the later baby? And when does one person or organism become two?
    2. Second, because so many topics immediately adjacent to or involved in pregnancy have taken centre-stage in philosophical enquiry. Examples include questions about personhood, foetuses, personal identity and the self.
  2. This project launches the metaphysics of pregnancy as an important and fundamental area of philosophical research.
  3. The core aims of the project are:
    1. to develop a philosophically sophisticated account of human pregnancy and birth, and the entities involved in this, that is attentive to our best empirical understanding of human reproductive biology;
    2. to articulate the metaphysics of organisms, persons and selves in a way that acknowledges the details of how we come into existence; and
    3. to start the process of rewriting the legal, social and moral language we use to classify ourselves and our actions, so that it is compatible with and can accommodate the nature of pregnancy.
  4. The project will investigate these questions in the context of a range of philosophical sub disciplines, including analytic metaphysics, philosophy of biology and feminist philosophy, and in close dialogue with our best empirical understanding of the life sciences – most notably physiology.

  1. Every single human is the product of a pregnancy; a (usually) nine-month period of development within another human’s body. Yet pregnancy itself has not been a traditional focus in philosophy. That is remarkable, for two reasons.
    1. First, because pregnancy presents fascinating philosophical problems:
      • What, during the pregnancy, is the relationship between foetus and maternal organism?
      • How do pregnant organisms relate to their potential offspring?
      • And when does one person or organism become two?
    2. Second, because so many topics that seem to depend on those questions have taken up centre stage in philosophical enquiry. Examples include
      • questions about personhood, personal identity and personal persistence;
      • the boundaries of the self and the relationship between self and body;
      • coming into existence; and
      • a variety of topics in reproductive ethics, such as the rights over and obligations towards foetuses and/or (future) offspring.
  2. These are not mere academic questions; they are practical. At this very moment, courts attempt to rule whether women can undergo forced Caesarean Sections on behalf of their foetus’ or future offspring’s wellbeing; whether women who smoke or take other toxic substances during pregnancy can be held criminally liable; and who, in case of conflict, has final rights over the contents of a (surrogate) mother’s womb. Less dramatically but possibly more seriously – and certainly more commonly – doctors and medical ethicists struggle to assimilate the facts of maternal-foetal intertwinement, maternal autonomy, and the different risk profiles that intervention-options present to mother and foetus into a coherent reasoning process and morally and/or clinically adequate recommendation; lawmakers wonder how we can consistently criminalise feticide without criminalizing abortion; and pregnant women all over the world fret over the risks and benefits of jogging, eating fish and drinking alcohol – or working in their field or engaging in a possibly risky profession – in the context of balancing their duty of care to self, foetus, present and future offspring.
  3. One thing that unites all these struggles is the inadequacy of the conceptual language in which we try to analyse them. Our moral, legal and social languages encode certain universal assumptions:
    • that there is a distinction between self and other;
    • between intervening and ‘letting things happen’; and
    • between persons, other persons and non-persons.
    But these distinctions break down when our object of consideration is a pregnant human. The reason for this inadequacy, I suggest, is twofold.
    1. First, even though pregnancy is how every person comes into existence, our language, laws and thinking about persons have not developed from a vantage point that was very attuned towards the possibility of being pregnant.
    2. Second, and more profoundly, pregnancy presents genuine and deep philosophical puzzles that may not be easy to solve, and that have not been adequately investigated. This project will take up that task.

State of the Art: The Foetal Container Model
  1. Pregnancy appears in three main contexts in analytic philosophy.
    1. First, in the context of the non-identity problem: the question whether future individuals can be harmed or wronged by the consequences of choices or conditions that were necessary to their existence ("Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons", 1984)
    2. Second, in the context of debates about the morality of abortion (e.g. McMahan 2002; Thompson, 1971).
    3. Third, in other questions in reproductive ethics, such as questions about genetic screening and questions about a pregnant woman’s obligations towards her (future) offspring (e.g. Buchanan et al., 2000).
    In none of these contexts does the literature pay due attention to the peculiar metaphysical questions that pregnancy raises: questions about
    1. the nature of pregnancy;
    2. the entities involved in it; and
    3. the relations between them.
    In this literature, what I call the foetal container model of pregnancy is implicitly, and uncritically, assumed. According to this model, the foetus develops inside the maternal organism as “a tub of yogurt is inside your refrigerator” (Smith & Brogaard, 2003: 74). But foetus and pregnant organism are not otherwise seen as overlapping, related or intertwined.
  2. The best illustration of the lack of philosophical focus on pregnancy is its conspicuous absence in places where such focus ought to appear. Take, for example, Olson (1997), who defends the dual claims (1) that we literally were once foetuses, and (2) that human persons are organisms. On that view we, literally, once inhabited our mothers. One would expect that to raise questions about pregnancy, personal identity and the relation between the gestating organism and her foetus/offspring. But at no point, not even in a footnote in an entire book devoted to these arguments, are those questions mentioned. That is not a particular criticism of Olson; it is entirely typical for the analytic philosophical literature – a silent testament to the widespread implicit acceptance of the foetal container model.
  3. This stands in stark contrast to the large body of work that explicates and criticise the foetal container model. A rich tradition in history and sociology documents its recent development and historical contingency (McClive, 2002; Duden, 1993); emphasises the role of political and professional interests in its construal (e.g. Arney, 1982; Petechsky, 1987); and explains it more generally within the context of larger social, classed and gendered power structures (e.g. Caspar, 1998; Duden, 1998; Katz-Rothman, 1994; Oakley, 1984). A wide range of feminist scholarship, meanwhile, has investigated the experience and (lack of) symbolic representation of pregnancy to present an image that is radically different from the foetal container model: metaphysically messy and ambiguous (Young, 1984; Kristeva, 1993; Irigaray, 1985; Howes, 2007), active and agential (Ruddick, 1994; Lindeman Nelson, 1994), constructed & transitional (Bergum, 1997) and characterized by intimacy and intertwinement (Little, 1999; 2005). But neither of these criticisms has successfully engaged analytic metaphysics; the entries on neither feminist metaphysics nor analytic feminism in the highly influential ‘Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ mention pregnancy at all.
  4. There are many reasons for this lack of engagement, but at least one is this: analytic metaphysics is broadly naturalistic in outlook, which requires a conception of pregnancy and organisms that is attentive to our best understanding of reproductive biology. Most feminist work, however – and for understandable reasons – has shied away from such a perspective, stressing that persons are pregnant, but perhaps overlooking that mammals are too. This lack of engagement between the two traditions means, on the one hand, that analytic philosophy still lacks the means to adequately conceptualise pregnancy, and on the other that much of the feminist work on pregnancy has not sufficiently probed the metaphysically peculiar claims that some of their claims seem to commit to. There is a dire need for a project that can bridge this gap:

  1. To develop a philosophically sophisticated account of human pregnancy and birth, and the entities involved in this, that is attentive to our best understanding of human reproductive biology;
  2. To articulate a metaphysics of organisms, persons and selves that acknowledges the details of how we come into existence;
  3. To start the process of rewriting the legal, social and moral language we use to classify ourselves and our actions so that it is compatible with and can accommodate the nature of pregnancy.

Topics to be Investigated: The project will proceed through the investigation of five interrelated subprojects.
  1. Metaphysics & Physiology of Pregnancy: Beyond the Foetal Container.
    • Subproject one forms the backbone of the larger research project. It will closely investigate the physiology of pregnancy in conjunction with existing philosophical literature on when we come into existence, in order to do three things.
      1. First, it will properly articulate the central questions and puzzles that the larger research project will answer: questions about the nature of pregnancy, the nature of maternal-foetal and foetal-baby relations, and the timing of organismic multiplication. Often the main philosophical work lies in asking the right questions, and the multiplication question is an example of this: it posits the maternal organism as an essential part of the story of how persons come into existence.
      2. Second, it will investigate alternatives to the foetal container model. An example of such an alternative is the part-whole model, according to which foetuses are not merely inside, but a proper part of pregnant organisms – like hearts, kidneys, nails and hair. (Kingma, under review). I will refer back to this particular hypothesis throughout the proposal in order to illustrate how the different subprojects are related, and how a fundamental investigation of the nature of pregnancy can bear upon a range of interesting and difficult questions in different domains.
      3. Third, it will articulate an important and – perhaps – radical assumption in the project: the assumption that the metaphysics of pregnancy is prior to the metaphysics of persons. This entails an explicit commitment to the possibility of revising dearly held assumptions about what a human or person is or what properties humans or persons have. For example, it is often simply assumed that persons and human beings could never be part of other humans (e.g. Howsepian, 2008); this project may force us to question such assumptions. This commitment posits some particular methodological requirements; for example that concepts used in this project, such as humans and persons, without the use of which the project cannot progress, should be seen as mere placeholders whose meaning and properties may turn out to differ radically from what we presently expect them to be.
  2. Reproducing Mammals: Organisms, Individuals and Other Biological Categories
    • Although we think of humans primarily as persons, they (also) reproduce as organisms – a feature they share with the rest of the biological world. Subproject two sets difficult questions about persons aside, and focuses solely on biological organisms. It will investigate the core claims and questions of subproject one, metaphysics and physiology of pregnancy, in the context of the most sophisticated views of organisms that the philosophy of biology has to offer. Most of these are very friendly to the idea that organisms can be part of other organisms; some include the bacteria that line our gut as part of the human organism, for example (e.g. Dupré & O’Malley, 2009). But they also work with a conception of organism that is in many ways quite different from our commonplace practical and philosophical assumptions about ourselves.
    • Subproject two has several important roles within the overall project.
      1. First, it keeps it firmly aware of our being mammals and animals as well as persons and should prevent us from adopting an overly anthropocentric approach;
      2. second, I expect this to generate alternative ways of conceiving the relation between foetus and gestational organism, suggesting accounts of the nature of pregnancy that we might not otherwise have thought to consider, whilst simultaneously ruling out some that would have seemed plausible had one only focused on persons.
      These will feed back into subproject one.
  3. Metaphysics of Nested Entities: Mereology, Identity, Persistence & Constitution.
    • If there are interesting metaphysical relations between foetus and future baby – such as identity and persistence – as well as interesting metaphysical relations between foetus and maternal organism then the nature of pregnancy presents us with a metaphysical entity that has unusual features at its most basic and abstract level. This raises interesting new questions in the context of two established but difficult metaphysical questions:
      1. how we distinguish wholes from their parts, and
      2. how entities remain the same thing over time, whilst undergoing change.
    • Subproject three investigates these problems. The role of this subproject within the larger whole is to ensure that solutions are built from first principles and respect basic metaphysical constraints. Specifically, I suspect that some of the puzzles about pregnancy are not peculiar to humans, persons or even animals, but reflect more general and basic philosophical puzzles about wholes, parts, identity and constitution. If so they need to be solved (or at least articulated and addressed) at that more basic and general level.
  4. Reproducing Persons: Self, Other and Future Self
    • Ultimately this project strives towards an account of the reproduction of persons. Subprojects two, reproducing organisms, and three, the metaphysics of nested parts, ensure that the project is, first, sensitive to the our best understanding of human reproduction, qua mammalian organisms, and, second, respects the general rules of logic and metaphysics. With those conceptions in place, subproject four investigates what the nature of pregnancy teaches us about persons. This separates out into two sub-questions.
      1. The first sub-question is: what does the nature of pregnancy imply for our conceptions of what persons are? It will investigate, for example, how common philosophical conceptions of persons (as organisms, minds, brains, or self-constructing narrative agents) are affected by and could accommodate alternatives to the foetal container model and the other research findings about the nature of pregnancy.
      2. Second, it will investigate the relation between past and future persons and explore whether this is affected by earlier research findings on the peculiar nature of pregnancy. Take, for example, the part-whole hypothesis, which conjectures that foetuses are part of the pregnant organism. If we also suppose that persons are organism, then this may suggest new ways of conceiving the relationship between pregnant organism and future offspring. We can explore, for example, whether the pregnant organism is a person that is about to split into two future persons: one mother-person, and one offspring-person. On this understanding the pregnant organism’s relationship to future offspring is (like) its relationship towards its future selves.
    • Reconceptions of the maternal-offspring relationship such as this one have the potential to affect some of the moral, legal and practical questions I discussed in the introduction: e.g. how we think about the obligations of pregnant women, and what, if anything, would justify externally enforcing them.
  5. Philosophical Embedding and Translation
    • Subproject 5 re-embeds the findings of the project in a wider philosophical context. This has two components. The first focuses on ethics, and in particular on a translation of the research findings into the legal and moral domain; our moral and legal language may reflect certain assumptions that are not warranted in the light of pregnancy, such as the tacit assumptions that persons are always distinct. If this project finds that, some, or all, persons do not have the properties we tacitly assume them to have, we have to revise the language underpinning social, moral and legal analysis to accommodate those findings.
    • The second component allows for situating this project’s highly analytic and approach to the philosophical investigation of pregnancy within the wider tradition of philosophical and feminist reflection on pregnancy, birth and motherhood in relation to the self.


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