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The University of Southampton

Philosophy of pregnancy and early motherhood research highly commended for national award

Published: 30 November 2018
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A major project led by the University of Southampton looking at the philosophy of pregnancy and early motherhood has been nominated for a national award.

The Philosophy of Pregnancy, Birth and Early Motherhood project led by Professor Fiona Woollard and Dr Elselijn Kingma has been Highly Commended for Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at this year’s Times Higher Education Awards.

Through a number of initiatives such as the ERC-funded BUMP project (Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy), public engagement initiative ‘the breastfeeding dilemma’, workshops, conferences and outreach events, Professor Woollard and Dr Kingma are bringing to the fore a number of questions that have largely been ignored about pregnancy and early motherhood:

  • What is the relationship between a fetus and a pregnant organism?
  • Is a pregnant woman an individual; two, or more, people; or something else entirely?
  • Where is the line between doing and allowing harm to an unborn baby, and does it need to be re-drawn?
  • What are maternal duties during pregnancy, birth and beyond?

As a result, and with the help of several funding streams including a €1.2m European Research Council grant, a Templeton funded Research Fellowship, PERU grants and ESRC Impact Acceleration Awards, Southampton is fast becoming a hub for the topic. This resulted in the University hosting a major international conference on the Philosophy of Pregnancy and Early Motherhood.

“We’re delighted that our work is being recognised for Research Project of the Year. We investigate a number of very important but overlooked issues, for women and men alike,” says Dr Kingma, whose main focus is metaphysics, ethics and philosophy of science. “Pregnancy is a really interesting state; you are one person, one human, one organism, but there is another organism intimately located within you. Therefore, it’s not clear where pregnant women fit in terms of being individuals. This is not something that has received previous philosophical attention.”

Professor Woollard, whose specialism is ethics and epistemology, adds: “The unique nature of pregnancy also means that many traditional ways of thinking about morality do not apply easily in pregnancy. For example, women who make less than optimal choices when it comes to their foetus’ wellbeing are often treated as if they are doing harm, rather than merely allowing harm or failing to benefit. This matters because we treat ‘doing harm’ much more seriously.

“But the difference between doing and allowing harm relies on the idea that there is a normal state of non-interference; you can just leave someone alone. But there’s no state of ‘non-interference’ in pregnancy; a pregnant woman can’t just leave her foetus alone.  My work explores how pregnancy, birth and early motherhood can challenge traditional ways of thinking about morality and knowledge – and how mistakes in our thinking about motherhood can influence the treatment of pregnant women and mothers, often leading to harmful consequences for these vulnerable groups.”

The Times Higher Education Awards – the ‘Oscars of higher education’ – celebrate the achievements of UK higher education institutions and their impact on society through teaching, research, enterprise, collaboration, leadership and innovation in the UK and around the world.

The winners of this year’s THE awards will be announced at a ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane, London, on 29 November.

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