Not one nor two: The philosophy of pregnancy

Fifth-year Ph.D. candidate Maja Sidzińska is working to fill a gap in philosophy of science scholarship about what individuality means.

Maja Sidzińska.

Aspen trees grow in clonal colonies, meaning they are genetically identical and connected by an underground root network despite appearing as individual trees above ground. Scientists have dubbed a Utah aspen clone, named Pando, the world’s largest organism by mass.

Fifth-year philosophy Ph.D. student Maja Sidzińska cites this as an example of “weird organisms”—compared with what people usually think of as an organism—that philosophers of biology grapple with when thinking about questions of individuality. But these discussions of individuality have not grappled with pregnant organisms, says Sidzińska, who sees human pregnancy as “weird in that same way.”

Looking at pregnancy through the viewpoints of ethics and politics, Sidzińska says she firmly believes in reproductive justice and choice; these are settled issues for her. But looking at pregnancy through a metaphysical lens, she found herself wondering, “How many individuals are there in a pregnancy?” When she herself was pregnant, the questions “What am I?” and “How many am I?” arose.

Her dissertation is on ontological understandings of pregnancy and what they mean for discussions of biological individuality. She helped organize a conference, History of the Philosophy of Pregnancy, held last month at the University of Dayton. Sidzińska spoke with Penn Today about her research and the philosophical questions she is exploring.

How did you become interested in the philosophy of pregnancy?

In my master’s program I was taking some classes; one of them was a course on human nature, and I happened to be pregnant at the time. We were reading many philosophers who gave accounts of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be a person. None of them were such that it was possible to be a pregnant person because there’s this assumption that you’re always a sort of discrete, independent, autonomous individual.

This seemed to reflect an exclusion of pregnant people at this ontological level. I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t exist in these discourses. People talk about having a child being a transformative experience, but it was transformative in the extreme for me; it changed the direction of my research. I’ve been on this pregnancy kick ever since, even though my kid’s 8 now.

When you look at metaphysics and philosophy of science, what are some of the gaps you’ve seen when it comes to philosophy of pregnancy?

Some feminists were talking about this question, such as Iris Marion Young, Julia Kristeva, and a few others. They described this experience that I experienced in some of their writings, like you’re one but your body is split; your body is your own, but it’s not your own. It was naming my experience, but it wasn’t resolving the conundrum. 

Many people are pregnant without realizing it, and so there’s a difference between the experience and the physiological state, and I became more interested in the physiological state. It turned out when I looked to metaphysics and philosophy of science nobody was talking about that either. Neither in metaphysics nor in philosophy of science was there any discussion of this weird conundrum of being not quite one organism but not quite two organisms either. There was one philosopher in the U.K. who was starting to talk about it, Elselijn Kingma.

What is your thesis about? 

I’m trying to develop criteria for understanding pregnancy from the perspective of metaphysics of science. One feature of the metaphysics of science is that scientists have to presume ‘where’ the individuals are to study them. Geneticists can’t do their work if they can’t specify which physiological parts are part of a genome. Population biologists may count organisms differently than geneticists; for instance, they may be concerned with a biofilm which contains a variety of genomes yet is treated as an individual. I’m trying to show that we can look to an example that’s much closer to home, much more mundane in a sense. Every one of us has to be gestated somehow.

I’m trying to show that the individuality question matters, and that the assumptions we’ve made about where the individuals are—even in the human case, which most people take as very intuitive—don’t necessarily hold. If we don’t have an account of what individuality is that includes pregnant human beings, then we’re excluding a set. It makes a difference to how we do research in the sciences or how we normatively think of what persons are.

There’s a question in the bioethical and practical context. Who is the patient we are concerned with? Usually this is very clear. But in the pregnancy case, it’s much more complicated because there’s a physiological connection through the placenta and umbilical cord between the mother or gestating parent and the fetus. There’s some sense in which whatever happens to the one happens to the other. Are they therefore best thought of as one patient?

How did the ‘History of the Philosophy of Pregnancy’ conference come about?

One of the faculty at Penn Philosophy retired, Susan Sauvé Meyer, and at her retirement colloquium her former grad student Myrna Gabbe, who’s now at University of Dayton, came to speak. Myrna Gabbe was working on Aristotle and reproduction and gave this fearless talk about everything Aristotle ever said and thought about menstruation. I always think the blood and the guts side of philosophy doesn’t get enough attention. Even though I’m interested in metaphysics and ontology, I do think it was nice to hear someone bring the conversation down to a more visceral level. I appreciated the talk, and we got together. 

There’s another grad student, Evangelian Collings, who’s at University of Pittsburgh and also researches pregnancy, who took a class with me online during the pandemic, given by Karen Detlefsen, the vice provost for education now. Evangelian and I worked together with Myrna and her department to put the conference together. 

What were some topics and presentations at the conference?

Someone presented a paper about the very recent history of policy around pregnancy, and his argument was that part of the exclusion of pregnant mothers or pregnant people from vaccine and other research was driven by the spectacle of the thalidomide disaster. Thalidomide was a drug that was given to treat nausea in pregnancy, and then it turned out that it caused many serious birth defects. Health policy was developed in response to that, but then of course the result was that we don’t have data on what’s safe or not in pregnancy, so now there’s a reaction against that. That exclusion is very fraught.

Another was a discussion about how the way (19th century philosopher Friedrich) Nietzsche, for instance, uses pregnancy as a metaphor for the productive artist. Artists, with their creativity, are in a sense pregnant with their ideas, and then they bring them to life. But the paper was a criticism of that, on the grounds that Nietzsche sort of appropriates this ability and applies it to men and their creative capacities, all the while forgetting where the metaphor is coming from.