A new argument on personhood, based on pregnancy

By Heloise Robinson.

This blog post is about a JME article I have just written, in which I make a new argument on personhood, in relation to pregnancy. I argue that, if we follow a threshold concept of personhood, there are reasons to recognise a second threshold that would be reached because of pregnancy, and that would mean that pregnant women have a superior moral status. It is not an argument on the moral status of the fetus, but on the moral status of the pregnant woman.

Although the argument might seem radical in some sense, it also seems to me that in another sense it should be easy to accept, at least, if we are committed to accepting a threshold approach to personhood. The most surprising point might be that no one, as far as I can tell, has made the argument before. There has already been some consideration of the possibility of recognising two thresholds of personhood, but in the context of future persons who will have been cognitively enhanced through the use of new biotechnologies. I think these are interesting scenarios to think about, although they also make me think of how they might be in line with a rather eager form of enthusiasm for super-heroes – the super-intelligent man, or the super-powerful man. This is science fiction. But in real life, there are some people among us who actually do have real super-powers: and the power to create a new human being is not only real, but surely is much more beneficial. I am not quite sure what is the use of having a super memory, and, perhaps, memorising hundreds of thousands of digits of Pi. I do think it is useful to create another human being.

I doubt I would have started to write this article if I had not read some of the recent and exciting literature on the metaphysics of pregnancy, and which has been associated with the Better Understanding of the Metaphysics of Pregnancy (BUMP) project, led by Elselijn Kingma. I am in no way connected with it, but discovered it with great interest. Having conducted research on the law and ethics of abortion for some years, it was a relief to find an engaging and growing body of literature in philosophy that addressed the significance of pregnancy beyond that context, and where the questions examined were not only about whether or not a pregnancy can be ended. The credit goes to Andrea Mulligan for pointing me towards this literature, through a long and spirited conversation we had in an Oxford senior common room about a shared interest in medical law and ethics, the value of women’s voices, and the many amazing features of pregnancy.

But there was one distinct catalyst for the article, which came later, and which is not directly related to my argument. There has been a recent trend to change the language used to speak about pregnancy. One day I came across a new text speaking about persons undertaking gestational labour, and some mention of producing a ‘product’ of this labour undertaking. There was, I think, some discussion that this undertaking of gestational labour performance had nothing to do with motherhood, but I must admit I was not able to read much of it. It was written in a language I could not read. I think there might well be important reflections and suggestions in that text that I would agree with, but the language created such a barrier for me that I could not get to them. It was the language itself that pushed me in another direction, to another sort of argument, and that helped me to realise what I truly thought about pregnancy – that it was not just a form of labour, or production, or a good to share out, or an injustice to redistribute, but rather a most profoundly human experience, with metaphysical significance. It comes with burdens, but that is not the sum of it. Human pregnancy is not just about doing. It is also about being. And that recognition, for me, also requires a certain kind of language. I do not know what it means to produce a product of gestation as a gestational labourer undertaker. I know what it means to be pregnant, to feel life growing inside my body, and to hold a newborn baby in my arms.

Not everyone will agree with my argument that pregnant women can be regarded as having a superior moral status. A lack of agreement will inevitably arise in the context of any discussions on personhood, because such discussions necessarily rely in part on a metaphysical, or intuitive, understanding, and it seems like we have different intuitions. There are also, here, epistemic barriers arising from the fact that those who have not experienced pregnancy, and the birth of their child, might not be able to fully appreciate the significance of pregnancy which I am trying to convey. Still, we have been having babies for quite some time now, and I think the importance of pregnancy needs additional consideration. I hope that many people will seriously consider the argument, not only for its potential to provide, I think, a richer conception of personhood, but also for the many positive practical and legal consequences that I believe it could, and should, bring.


Paper title: Pregnancy and Superior Moral Status: A Proposal for Two Thresholds of Personhood

Author: Heloise Robinson

Affiliations: Singer Fellow in Law, Exeter College, University of Oxford

Competing interests: None declared

Social media accounts of post author: Twitter: @HeloiseRobinson

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