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Research project: Philosophy of Pregnancy and Early Motherhood

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Although philosophers have explored some issues related to pregnancy – most obviously abortion and the value and metaphysics of coming into existence – little philosophical attention has been paid to pregnancy itself. That is a remarkable omission because pregnancy and early motherhood raise many interesting and important philosophical problems. Southampton Philosophers are tackling these overlooked questions in a series of research projects that are funded by, amongst other, the European Research Council and the Templeton Foundation. This research also engages with health care practitioners and policy makers to translate its outcomes into real-world improvements for women and their babies.

Pregnancy and Early Motherhood pose many interesting, and largely overlooked, philosophical questions in metaphysics, ethics and epistemology. Southampton philosophers Elselijn Kingma and Fiona Woollard are tackling some of these questions in a series of related sub-projects. These are:

1. Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy (BUMP)

Pregnancy presents us with 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? A 1.2 million Euro research grant from the ERC allows Elselijn Kingma and her team to address these and other questions in a 5 year research project starting in spring 2016.

2. Mother Knows Best: Pregnancy, Applied Ethics and Epistemically Transformative Experiences

This project explores pregnancy as an epistemically transformative experience and the implications for philosophical debate on issues such as abortion. Is there crucial knowledge only accessible, or primarily accessible, to people who have been pregnant? How should philosophers respond to this? Fiona Woollard has been awarded a 5 month Non-Residential Research Fellowship in the Philosophy of Transformative Experience to address these questions, in association with The Templeton Foundation, the University of Notre Dame and The University of North Carolina.

3. Public Policy project: Rights and Obligations of Pregnant & Birthing Women in the Dutch Context

The moral rights and obligations of pregnant and birthing women are of constant interest to a range of social developments including the organization of the birth system, obstetric ethics, and public life-style advise to pregnant women. Elselijn Kingma gives research-based advice to Dutch professional health care organizations, the Dutch government and various pressure groups on these issues. She was awarded a £10,000.00 University of Southampton Public Policy Award to support this work.

4. The Breastfeeding Dilemma: Guilt, Shame and Philosophical Mistakes in Discussion of Infant Feeding Choices

This project brings together academics, policy makers, medical professionals, parental support organisations, members of the media, mothers and members of the public to address ‘the Breastfeeding Dilemma’: how do we encourage breastfeeding and support women in doing so, without subjecting those who choose not to breastfeed, or are unable to do so, to shame and guilt with potentially devastating consequences? This project is supported by the Southampton Ethics Centre and a Southampton Public Engagement with Research Development Award.

5. Taking Pregnancy Seriously in Metaphysics, Ethics and Epistemology

Although philosophers have explored issues related to pregnancy – most obviously abortion and the value and metaphysics of coming into existence – little philosophical attention has been paid to pregnancy itself. That is a remarkable omission because pregnancy raises important philosophical problems in metaphysics, ethics and epistemology. With financial support from a £6,500 University of Southampton “Adventures in Research” Grant, the Southampton Ethics Centre, the British Society for Philosophy of Science and the Aristotelian Society, Elselijn Kingma and Fiona Woollard organised four workshops between June 2014 and September 2015 that explored these questions.





In the Media

Below you can find Elselijn Kingma and Fiona Woollard's Op-Ed published in - a Dutch newspaper, in which they argue against Dutch proporals to increase powers for government intervention on pregnant women who smoke or abuse other substances. A rough English translation is available here.

Click here to listen to the Radio National debate on the Metaphysics of Pregnancy featuring Elselijn Kingma.

The video below shows a short excerpt from Elselijn Kingma's contribution to the panel discussion: 'Perinatal Mortality in the Netherlands: Facts, Myths and Policy' at the first Human Rights in Childbirth conference in the Hague, the Netherlands in 2012.

In December 2014, Elselijn Kingma gave a radio interview on the metaphysics of pregnancy. Click here to listen to the Radio Interview and click here to read Radio National's write-up of it.

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Conferences and events associated with this project:

SWIP UK 2018: The Philosophy of Pregnancy, Birth, and Early Motherhood Conference

A conference organised in association with SWIP, BUMP & PHILBIRTH on 21 and 22 June 2018.


Past events

28th March 2016 - Programma Rode Hoed, De Geboortezorg: Een Nieuw Begin

Elselijn Kingma will be addressing a diverse group of stakeholders at an event about imminent changes to the organisation of the Dutch Birth System.


23rd March 2016 - The Breastfeeding Dilemma Workshop


Gill Thomson (UCLan) - Shame Associated with Infant Feeding

Fiona Woollard (Southampton) - Breastfeeding and Duty: Philosophical Mistakes about Motherhood in discussion of Infant Feeding Decisions

Elselijn Kingma (Southampton) - Breastfeeding, Pressure and Illocutionary Silencing

Heather Trickey (Cardiff, NCT) - Beyond 'choice'... how might an ecological perspective change the terms of the infant feeding debate?

For more information about this event, please click here.


22rd March 2016 - European Forum for Philosophy: The Philosophy of Pregnancy and Birth


Elselijn Kingma (Southampton)

Fiona Woollard (Southampton)

Lisa Baraitser (Birkbeck, University of London)

For more information about this event, please click here.


18th September 2015 - Taking Pregnancy Seriously in Metaphysics II: Identity and Persistence


Lynne Baker (Amherst) - A puzzle about pregnancy: first there is one person, then there are two

Ellen Clarke (Oxford) - Reproduction and Evolution

Elselijn Kingma (Southampton) - Budding Humans? Pregnancy and Identity

Steinvör Árnadóttir (Stirling) - On the metaphysical implications of the part-whole view

For more information on this workshop please click here.


21st July 2015 - Taking Pregnancy Seriously in Metaphysics: The Foetus and the Maternal Organism


Eric Olson (Sheffield) - Is the Foetus a part of the Mother's Body?

John Dupré (Exeter) - Pregnancy as a Bifurcating process 

Rohan Lewis (Southampton) - No going back: biological perspectives on the emergence of biological identity in reproduction

Barry Smith (Buffalo)- Embryontology

Slideshows from this workshop are available here.




Buns in Ovens

Our medical and cultural depiction of pregnancy is that of the 'baby in the tummy' or the 'bun in the oven'; a depiction in which a pregnant woman is a mere container within which a foetus resides. But is there more to pregnancy than bun-baking? Part of International Women's Week 2015.


13th April 2015 - Taking Pregnancy Seriously in Metaphysics, Ethics and Epistemology, Workshop II


Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown) - Equipoise, Uncertainty, and Indctive Risk in Research Involving Pregnant Women

Lindsey Porter (Sheffield) - Gestation and Parental Rights: Why is Good Enough Good Enough

Sally Fischer (Warren-Wilson) - The Phenomenology of Pregnant Embodiment

Fiona Woollard (Southampton) - Motherhood and the Reason/Duty Distinction


18th June 2014 - Taking Pregnancy Seriously in Ethics and Epistemology, Workshop I


Angela Fenwick and Rose Wiles (Southampton) - Ventouse or forceps: whose delivery, whose decision?

Rosamund Scott (KCL) - 'Maternal-fetal conflict' during Pregnancy and at Birth

Rebecca Roache (Oxford) - Is unwanted pregnancy a medical disorder?

Hazel Biggs (Southampton) - Autonomy and enforced Caesarean sections





















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