The Problem of Pregnancy

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Having come this far, it is time to discuss the problem of pregnancy.

There has been so much intelligent and provocative feminist analysis of pregnancy that I cannot hope to do the matter even the roughest justice. But I also cannot ignore it, so I’ll just have to content myself with a few observations here.

Pregnancy is an exclusively female experience. It’s also, at least as understood in many cultures, a profoundly important experience. And it is without parallel–it is simply not like anything else. (I reject the comment to an earlier post of mine on Feminist Law Prof that likened it to having a tape worm or a kidney stone.)

These aspects of pregnancy create twin perils. On the one hand, to ignore or devalue the unique aspects of pregnancy denies women full credit for their extraordinary contribution to the birth of a child. It creates a fallacious equality between men and women, for in this regard, men and women are not equal. To deny the importance of pregnancy to the question of parental status shortchanges women who experience pregnancy and birth.

At the same time, over-emphasizing the unique experience of pregnancy and birth carries its own risks. At times all women have been viewed as little more than potentially pregnant people, not capable of rationale thought or difficult work. And of particular importance to me here, over-emphasizing the importance of pregnancy and birth can make it impossible for any other person to assert a claim of parental status equal to that of the woman who gave birth.

My hope here is to steer a course between these perils. I recognize that there is something unique in the role a pregnant woman plays in the period before the birth of a child. I would recognize the importance of pregnancy by giving her a claim to parental status at the time the child is born. (I make no statement here about whether she is the only person who can make such a claim at the time of birth.) But as soon as the child is born others are equally able to assume parental roles, to nurture the infant. And so others can become parents–equal parents— of the child. As the pregnancy is completed the woman who was pregnant carries no advantage forward into the future.

-Julie Shapiro (cross posted to Related Topics)

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0 Responses to The Problem of Pregnancy

  1. yf says:

    I may have crossed the line into hyperbole with the tapeworm/kidney stone reference (although, what else does a mother do during pregnancy other than involuntarily provide sustenance to the fetus?). However, while I might eventually accept that pregnancy is sufficient to confer parent status upon a woman at birth, your post does very little do advance the argument.

    Pregnancy is undoubtedly an exclusively female experience, but what is it about the process that makes the woman a mother? Is it the physical nourishment, the fetus’ presence within the woman’s body? My intuition tells me that it is somewhere along the lines of the bond that forms between a woman and her fetus that makes her a mother, but I’m uncomfortable stating that a woman must have a loving bond with her newborn to be given the legal rights of a mother.

    If you are willing to recognize a woman’s claim to motherhood based solely on her pregnancy experience, I think you need to do more than explain that “pregnancy is a unique experience.”

  2. I’m grateful for the thoughtful comments, yf.

    Perhaps we should agree to put the tape worm/kidney stone aside (although it’s a nicely provocative comparison). I don’t mean to suggest that pregnancy makes one a parent because it is uniquely female. Instead, there are two separate (though perhaps related) points I want to make. (Your last post makes me think I haven’t been clear enough about this, but it may be that I have been clear on my own blog ( and not here at fem law prof.)

    First we seem to agree that pregnancy is an exclusively female experience. The point I’d make about that is that this makes it difficult to analyze. It doesn’t fit comfortably within a paradigm of gender equality. And arguments about female exceptionality always have the potential to work against the interests of women and against notions of equity in general. Thus, I think people may tend to gloss over the significance of pregnancy because it raises so many complicated issues. I think it is a mistake to do that.

    Second, taking up my own challenge to think about pregnancy more carefully, I move to the parenthood question. And I agree I need to spell out exactly why the pregnant woman becomes (at some point) a parent to the child. I’m reluctant to go with the “bond” idea, at least in part for the reason yf suggests.

    Instead, I’d note that for the forty weeks of pregnancy the pregnant woman provides for ALL of the developing entities needs. Yf has referred several times to the provision of nutritution, and that’s part of it. But more important to me is that whatever the needs of the developing fetus are, all of them are fufilled by the pregnant woman (alone). If from the moment of birth one person cared for a child entirely, 24/7, providing everything they child needed, I’d likely consider that person to be a parent at the end of that time. Because to me, this is what it means to be a parent–to care and nurturance for the child.

    Now here is the slippery bit, which I’ll acknowledge up front. I’m not going to say that the pregnant woman has already cared for the child for nine months at the time the child is born because I don’t accept that there has been a child for that whole time. Similarly, I cannot say that the pregnant woman has already acted as the child’s parent before the child’s birth. Instead, I want to say something like this–that during the process of pregnancy, the pregnant woman is responsible for providing all that the developing entity (whatever it is) needs, and that once that entity becomes a child, she becomes its first parent. Or at least, I think that’s what I want to say.