Bun or bump?

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Does the mother contain the foetus or is it a part of her? On the metaphysics of pregnancy, and its ethical implications

Suki Finn is a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton, working on the ERC-funded project ‘Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy’. She also researches in the areas of metametaphysics and the philosophy of logic, and has published her work in various philosophy journals.

After a long wait, last year Bridget Jones once again graced our cinema screens. But things had changed considerably for the heroine, played by Renée Zellweger, in Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016). Following an emotional rollercoaster of romantic misunderstandings and sexual mishaps, Bridget becomes pregnant, a state that finds her in a reflective and deeply philosophical mood, as she sits in her kitchen, baking buns. She looks at the buns, growing bigger inside the oven, and then looks down to her belly and compares herself to her kitchen appliance, wondering: ‘Do I too have a bun in the oven? Is there a baby growing separately inside of me, or am I growing a baby part of my own?’ 

Once the buns are ready, she tucks in to her baked delights, and gazes longingly at the portion she had set aside for friends and asks: ‘Is it true that I am eating for two? Are there actually two beings to be fed here, or just one that is bigger than normal?’ She also contemplates the option of terminating the pregnancy, and asks: ‘Is it really my body, and therefore my choice to abort? Do I have complete autonomy over my body, and what is actually included in what counts as my body?’ The musings go on and on…

Okay, so Bridget does not actually ask these questions, but philosophers do. The sciences (in particular, biology) have added immensely to our knowledge of how we and other things reproduce, and so it is natural to think that these questions are best left within the scientific domain. But this thought is mistaken, as there are philosophical issues around pregnancy that remain unanswered by the sciences, leaving many aspects of pregnancy a mystery.

To illustrate these, let us return to Bridget Jones. Bridget affectionately calls her pregnant bump her ‘baby’. We will less affectionately (but more accurately) use the term ‘foetus’, which will here be used generically to describe whatever Bridget is pregnant with at any stage during the pregnancy, all the way from conception to birth. We will not be talking solely of Bridget, nor will we be talking specifically about human mothers-to-be, but rather our discussion of the metaphysics of pregnancy will be applicable to any mammal with a placenta. As such, our discussion covers hamsters and hippos, but not, for example, kangaroos. For this reason, we will use the phrase ‘maternal organism’ to refer to the pregnant placental mammal regardless of whether it is a human or has the social status of being a mother. As for the role of the ‘paternal organism’, or father, this is obviously important and significant, but falls outside the remit of the study of the metaphysical state of pregnancy that I am focusing on here.

What, then, is the metaphysical relationship between the maternal organism and the foetus? One possible answer is that the foetus is a part of the maternal organism, just like the maternal organism’s organs and limbs are. Let us call this the parthood model. Another possible answer is that the maternal organism carries, or contains, the foetus, which is a distinct entity in its own right. Call this the container model. So which model is correct, and does it change throughout the pregnancy? This is not a mere matter of choice, nor an argument over the language we use to describe what is otherwise considered to be the same situation. Rather there is a fact of the matter to be found, and as we will see, the truth about the metaphysical relationship between the foetus and the maternal organism will have wide-reaching implications for our moral and legal practices regarding pregnancy. But before looking at such consequences, we shall next take a closer look at these two rival models of the metaphysics of pregnancy…


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