May 16, 2016

Metaphysics of Pregnancy


Questions of conception, gestation and birth can found in debates about reproductive ethics, where discussions may be on legal rights and on tensions between individual entities, mother and fetus; doctors and mothers; or the state and the individual. But Elselijn Kingma, a Swedish analytic philosopher goes to the heart of the matter in what she terms the ‘metaphysics of pregnancy’. She points out that all of humans are the result of a pregnancy so this should not be the concern of only women.
Reproductive matters, according to her, are not moral but rather physical and metaphysical questions having tremendous implications for our personal and socio-cultural understandings. The depiction of pregnancy as ‘0 becomes 1’ (simply that the baby comes into being) obscures the role and physicality of the mother. Pregnancy is rather ‘1 becomes 2’. The fetus is a part of one organism and gradually differentiates from it. The mother’s body is not a simple ‘container’—a hollow to be filled by a ‘baby’. The container model pervades western and bio-medical culture—an example is Nielson’s colorful image of the ‘baby’ in the womb, which I myself was captivated by 40 some years ago. The embryo is shown as if it were an astronaut floating in space—whereas the mother and the placenta fade into the background.

Kingma maintains that the fetus is a part of one organism. She even uses the word ‘splitting’ for birth—which resonates with one ritual, which I have called separating of the atta when a laboring woman separates one mound of atta into two mimetic of the birth activity of her own body, one becoming two . Kingma argues that this phenomenon, biologically accurate, precedes and belies legal rights of individuals of the ‘morality’ of abortion debates on rights and wrongs.

Although feminists have critiqued the ‘container’ model, they mostly use a legal approach implying that the mother’s ‘rights’ are being infringed. It seems as though this philosopher and women’s incursions into science, and influence on male scientists, have begun to allow us to know the extent of interrelationships of beings.

                  Ritual splitting of the flour during labour--a common traditional practice.

The placenta, according to Kingma is the hallmark of integrated-ness. There are no firm boundaries to be drawn between when the fetus starts and the mother ends. The Placenta and mother ‘grow into each other’ and at birth time they split—this splitting action is ritualized over and over again in many traditional birth rites and customs.


We all consider our bodies to be our own unique being, so the notion that we may harbor cells from other people in our bodies seems strange. Even stranger is the thought that, although we certainly consider our actions and decisions as originating in the activity of our own individual brains, cells from other individuals are living and functioning in that complex structure.  According to an article in Scientific American “Cells may migrate through the placenta between the mother and the fetus, taking up residence in many organs of the body including the lung, thyroid, muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin.”

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