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Why There Are Some Things You Can Only Know If You’ve Been Pregnant – And Why This Matters

In this post, Fiona Woollard discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the significance of experiencing pregnancy.


There are some experiences that make you a member of special kind of club. Some are trivial: drinking Irn Bru, Scotland’s favourite soft drink. Some are life changing: going into space, fighting in a war or having cancer. The club members (people who have had the experience) know what the experience is really like. This is very hard to explain to people outside the club.  They often think they understand, but they do not really get it. It is easy to talk about the experience with other people who have had that experience. They understand what you are trying to express.  They get it. L.A. Paul called experiences like this, experiences that provide knowledge that you cannot acquire without having the experience, epistemically transformative experiences.

I argue in a recent article that pregnancy is an epistemically transformative experience: being pregnant provides you with access to knowledge about what pregnancy is like that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire without being pregnant. This matters because in order to think properly about the ethics of abortion we need to know what being pregnant is like.

Why Is It So Hard to Understand What it is Like to Be Pregnant?

Pregnancy is a complex set of interacting experiences which are very different from experiences commonly had by people who have not been pregnant.

Pregnancy involves multiple unexpected bodily sensations and the most rapid and dramatic changes to the shape and functioning of your body experienced in healthy adult bodies. These bodily transformations of pregnancy may change the pregnant person’s understanding of their relationship to their own body. As Iris Marion Young argues: “In pregnancy, I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends and the world begins.”

Pregnancy also involves having what will be another person growing inside your body. These result in changes to your relation to yourself and your body. Young also argues that their unique relationship to the fetus challenges the pregnant person’s self-understanding, because they see the foetus as both self and not-self. Young calls this: “a unique body subjectivity that is difficult to empathize with unless one has been pregnant.”

It is hard to understand each of these aspects of pregnancy without being pregnant. Their combination means that it is extremely difficult for those who have not been pregnant to understand what pregnancy is like.

Can We Read All About It?

Narrative literature can go some way to overcoming these barriers to understanding. Using metaphor and imagery, literature can take our understanding beyond the literal meaning of words. Literature can also present experience as a whole, showing how the different features interact. So, engaging with appropriate narrative helps us to overcome two of the barriers that those who have not been pregnant face in acquiring the knowledge gained in pregnancy.

It helps us to grasp what the truth of various descriptions about pregnancy mean and it helps us to understand how those features interact with other aspects of pregnancy. Chitra Ramaswamy’s Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy describes vividly and richly what she is feeling and how her body is changing, month by month. Turning the final page, you feel as if you have walked with Ramaswamy through her journey. Ramaswamy’s book is one of many excellent narratives on pregnancy by those who have been pregnant.

But there is still a gap between the understanding of those who have been pregnant and those who have not. Pregnancy is just so different from any other experience that it is impossible to fully grasp without the experience. Pregnancy is an epistemically transformative experience.

Why This Matters for The Ethics of Abortion

All this matters, because understanding what pregnancy is like is necessary to think properly about the ethics of abortion. In order to know whether abortion is permissible, we need to know what the costs are of having to remain pregnant when you do not want to.

It is very hard to argue that these costs don’t affect whether abortion is permissible. To do that you’d have to argue that if someone is pregnant they are required to keep the foetus alive no matter what it costs them.

Quite to the contrary, I would even argue that the costs of being pregnant against your will are so high that there is a right to safe access to abortion. I think the state has a duty to ensure that abortion is safe and easily available.

This conclusion needs a lot of argument to support it. My aim here is not to convince you to agree with my views on abortion. My key point is that to work out whether those views are right or not, we need to understand what pregnancy is like. We cannot assess the ethics of abortion without knowledge about what pregnancy is like. As I argued above, this knowledge can only be fully grasped by those who have been pregnant.

No uterus=no opinion?

This does not mean that those who have not been pregnant should simply stay out of the ethics of abortion. Ethical reasoning does not need to be done in isolation. In fact, most of the ways we actually do reason about ethics are cooperative. The professional philosopher presents their arguments at a conference and feverishly scribbles down the feedback.  The indignant neighbour logs on to ‘Am I the Asshole?’ Redditt to get stranger’s judgments about who is in the wrong.

But those who have not been pregnant need to get feedback from those who have been pregnant. This can help them understand whether their arguments depend on overlooking what it is like to be pregnant. And this will only work if they really listen to that feedback.  They need to recognise that what pregnancy is like will be hard for them to fully grasp and hard for those who have been pregnant to convey. They need to recognise the epistemically transformative nature of pregnancy, and how this must inform our moral thinking.

Funding Acknowledgement

This blog was written during research leave on the BUMP: Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 679586).

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.

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14 Comments

  1. David Zimmerman

    “You can only think clearly about capital punishment if you are or have have been on death row.”
    You can only think clearly about obligations to future generations if you are a future person.”
    “You can only think clearly about social justice if you are in the lower economic quintile of the population.
    “You can only….”
    You get the point: This article is rubbish.

    • Colin from Asheville, programmer and father

      The author did not use these words – you appear to be paraphrasing, and yet you completely twist the tone of the argument (to fit your needs).

      It would be more truthful to say “being on death row gives a person insights and knowledge about capital punishment that is difficult or impossible to share with someone that has not had that experience.”

      • David Zimmerman

        The criticisms of my initial comment on the OP are well-taken: The focus of the article was on an [allegedly] privileged epistemic standpoint, not a privileged conceptual standpoint.

        My matrix for the list of odd implications of the argument in the OP should have been something like:
        “You have crucial knowledge of the problem of _____________ only if you have first hand experience of being a ____________.”

        However, even on this epistemic interpretation, the argument is quite weak. Jim Birch brings out nicely one reason why “privileged epistemic standpoint” arguments carry little weight, when he notes that the first-hand experiences [e.g.] of pregnant woman are all over the map . Some find the experience sublime, others invasive, and so on for all the contrasts that could be enumerated.

        Given this, it is hard [for me] to see how appealing to those differing experiences of pregnancy can shed much light on the two central issues that animate the debates over abortion: 1. The moral standing of the human organism in utero and 2. The problem of weighing the conflicting claims of pregnant woman and human organism in utero.

        As for the ecumenical call to draw on whatever information might be available about any given moral problem, I draw on something that Robert Nozick used to say about philosophical arguments in general….that there are two possible skeptical responses: “Oh yah!” and “So what?”

        For me the OP’s call to include the first hand experiences of pregnant woman in the debates over the morality of abortion is a case of “So what?”…. meaning by that: “Fine, to be sure, let us include all the information we can, including that about the first hand experiences of pregnant women, conflicting thought that surely is …. but in the end nothing about those experiences will help us much in addressing the problems of moral standing and conflicting claims.”

    • M

      I would certainly hope that those working on social justice do take into consideration what it’s like to be in the lower economic quintile of the population, on the basis of testimony from those people. I would likewise hope that those working on capital punishment do take into consideration what it’s like to be on death row, on the basis of the testimony of those who are or who have been on death row. And given that future persons do not (qua future persons) have experiences anyone can ask them about, it is not clear to me that the argument implies anything either way about that putative example.

      The author’s point was not “you can only think clearly about abortion if…”.

      • M

        Also I realise I should have said: “those working on social justice who are not themselves in the lower economic quintile…” (etc).

  2. David Zimmerman

    I add this comment a second time, so that I can read replies and future posts on the topic. Sorry for the duplication:

    “You can only think clearly about capital punishment if you are or have have been on death row.”
    You can only think clearly about obligations to future generations if you are a future person.”
    “You can only think clearly about social justice if you are in the lower economic quintile of the population.
    “You can only….”
    You get the point: This article is rubbish.

    • Straw Man

      You can only think clearly about David Zimmerman’s comments if you are a straw man.

  3. Jim Birch

    I agree with David Zimmerman, the logic of this argument implies all sorts of weird conclusions. I’d be interested in the author’s comment on that.

    More generally, this argument that things can only be known reliably by experiencing them directly seems to be quasi-religious. Evolution has equipped us with the highly adaptive mental capability to evaluate the consequences courses of action without experiencing them. This allows us to choose beneficial actions and reject adverse ones without experiencing their consequences. Knowledge is personal, social and economic capital.

    Coming from the other side, we could also say that mere direct experience of a single one instance of anything is not a good information strategy. Restricting ourselves to direct experience may actually make us stupid if our personal experience is an outlier.

    Some women have appalling pregnancies, most don’t. A woman will certainly know more about their particular experience of pregnancy by becoming pregnant but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have good advice for anyone, even for themselves. Most women find pregnancy psychologically transformative to some degree – usually positively – but does this really induct them into some otherwise impenetrable cognition? That sounds like a religious claim to me.

    • David Zimmerman

      I appreciate Jim Birch’s thoughtful comment on the OP. My brief comment was much too brief to do the OP justice. I should have done more than simply start a list of possible implications of the underlying logic of the article.

  4. Colin from Asheville, programmer and father

    I’m surprised anyone would argue against this main point: that some experiences cannot be fully expressed using words. There are so many simple examples: describe blue to someone who cannot see color.

    I can only shake my head at those people who, on hearing the words “you cannot know why I mean” lash out with anger, instead of accepting the bare truth that we all have experiences that we simply cannot fully transfer to another person.

    The author made a point of saying that everyone should be at the table for discussion, so this is not an article that attempts to exclude anyone. It is only fair – obvious even – to say that we should be listening to the people who have first hand experience.

  5. David Zimmerman

    I now realize that my response earlier this morning [Oct 4] was far too concessive.

    The OP was making points about both epistemic privilege and proper thinking, for she explicitly says early in the OP: “…in order to think properly about the ethics of abortion we need to know what being pregnant is like.”

    I stand by the substance of my initial comment: this is just silly.

  6. BJ

    Everyone commenting seems to be a man. All uteruses are theoretical. Meta.

    • David Zimmerman

      So what? I am not aware that there are any bars to women commentators to this OP.

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