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.
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).