Thursday 30 March 2017

The Philosophy of Early Motherhood: Interview with Fiona Woollard

In this post I interview Fiona Woollard (University of Southampton) about her work in the philosophy of early motherhood.

LB: How did you become interested in the philosophy of pregnancy and early motherhood? Can you describe your research interests in this area?

FW: I’ve been interested in the ethics of abortion since I was an undergraduate. In fact, it was probably my interest in this issue that lead me to a career in philosophy. But once I became pregnant myself, I felt a strange kind of dissatisfaction with most of the existing literature on abortion. With a few notable exceptions – for example, the wonderful work of Margaret Little – the philosophical literature on abortion failed to engage at all with the messy reality of pregnancy: the blood and guts, the stretch marks and vomiting. Imagine that you were a little green alien from alpha centauri trying to learn about human reproduction from the most popular papers on abortion by analytical philosophers.

What kind of picture of pregnancy and birth would you have formed? You might well end up thinking that human reproduction normally involves a woman lying in a clean, white bed for 9 months with a small tube connecting her to a small version of an adult human whom she supports without noticeable change to her own body. In case, you are a little green alien from alpha centauri, let's state for the record that pregnancy is not like that. And it matters that the philosophical literature on abortion ignores what pregnancy is really like. What pregnancy is like, physically and emotionally, matters for understanding what is at stake when we consider whether a woman is required to remain pregnant.

I also found that it was very difficult to get people who had not been pregnant to understand what it was like to be pregnant. Laurie Paul's wonderful paper What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting was doing the rounds among philosophers at this point. Paul argues that some experiences, like becoming a parent, are epistemically transformative: they provide knowledge that cannot be acquired without the experience. I wondered if pregnancy itself was a epistemically transformative experience. If so, this might have important implications for philosophical debate on the ethics of abortion. If what it is like to be pregnant is crucial for understanding the ethics of abortion and those who haven't been pregnant cannot grasp what it is like to be pregnant, can only people who have been pregnant engage in debate about the ethics of abortion?

At around the same time, a new colleague, Elselijn Kingma arrived in the department, with a wonderful project on the metaphysics of pregnancy: is the foetus a separate organism inside the pregnant woman*, like a bun in an oven, or part of her*, like a tail on a cat? Elselijn and had some really fruitful conversations. I was excited by the ethical implications of Elselijn's work - and we were both more generally interested in the ways in which the unique relationship between the pregnant woman* and the foetus might raise challenges for our moral concepts. Most of our moral concepts, like the difference between doing and allowing harm and ideas of autonomy, rights and self ownership, have developed to apply to interactions between separate human beings, with separate bodies and separate interests. The intertwinement of pregnant woman* and foetus means these everyday moral concepts don't easily apply.

My work in the philosophy of pregnancy, led to an interest in philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood . I became convinced that there are philosophical mistakes in the way we think about motherhood, which influence how we treat pregnant women* and new mothers. This can often lead to very harmful consequences for these vulnerable groups.

LB: In an article you wrote for the NCT you distinguish between reasons and duties and apply this distinction to a hotly debated topic, breastfeeding. How can this distinction help understand how people feel about breastfeeding and, more generally, what a mother owes to her children? 

FW: There is a lot of shame and guilt surrounding how people feed their babies. Mothers who use formula often feel guilty or that other people are judging them. Yet, mothers who breastfeed also feel like they are being shamed for breastfeeding in public, pressured to stop or told that they are showing off. I think that a lot of this springs from philosophical mistakes in the way we think about motherhood in general. Failing to understand the distinction between reasons and duties is one such mistake. In one paper I explain how this mistake feeds into the guilt and shame surrounding infant feeding. The problem is that we mistakenly assume that if breastfeeding is beneficial, mothers must have a defeasible duty to breastfeed.

Defeasible duties make us accountable. When I have a defeasible duty to do something, I am required to do it unless I have some good excuse. If I don't do it, other people can ask me to justify that decision. If I can't, I should feel guilty and other people can blame me. So I have a defeasible duty to teach my class. I have to do it unless I have some good excuse i.e. if I got trapped beneath a falling tree on my way to class and would have had to chew off my own leg to free myself in time. If I don't turn up, my students and colleagues can demand an explanation. If my explanation isn't good enough - i.e. if I just didn't feel like teaching - then I should feel guilty and they can blame me.

When we demand that mothers defend their choice to use formula, we treat them as if they have a defeasible duty to breastfeed.

When we treat arguments supporting breastfeeding, or even any celebration of breastfeeding, as an attack on formula feeders, we are assuming that if breastfeeding is good, then mothers must have a defeasible duty to breastfeed.

But the fact that something is good normally only give me a reason to do it, not a defeasible duty. Because it would be good to raise money for cancer research, I have a reason to run a marathon. But I don't have a duty. If I don't run, then other people can't accost me, demanding that I justify this. And I don't need to feel guilty. But the reason helps to make sense of what I do and gives other people reason to support me.

I think that if breastfeeding is beneficial, mothers have a reason to breastfeed, but do not have a duty to breastfeed. Once we recognise this, we can see that it is possible to argue for the need to support breastfeeding *without* implying that formula feeders should feel guilty. It's going to be very difficult to change people's thinking on this. It is a very emotive issue and the mistaken assumptions are very deeply engrained. In fact, we don't just make mistakes about reasons and duties when it comes to infant feeding decisions. In another paper I show that this is mistake we make in discussing maternal behaviour more generally. We see this very widely, from the discussion of the diets of pregnant women* to approaches to birth choices. It's just widely assumed that if a pregnant woman* or mother has the opportunity to benefit her child, she has a defeasible duty to take it.

LB: Do you believe that philosophy has the potential for improving women's lives? What can philosophers do to help bring about change outside academia? 

I strongly believe that philosophy can improve women's lives. One of the most important skills that philosophers have is the ability to recognise mistakes in our thinking. I think that there are many mistakes in popular thinking which deeply damage women's lives. Of course, at the moment, I am particularly focused on mistakes in the way we think about motherhood, and the way this impacts pregnant women* and new mothers. But we see similar problems in other areas: for example, mistakes about sexual autonomy and consent have serious implications for the wellbeing of young women in general and rape victims in particular.

One big thing that philosophers need to do is to help make these changes is to get outside the academy and talk to the general public, to the relevant groups, to professionals and volunteers working with them and to academics working in other fields. We can't change the conversation unless we join the conversation!

I'm currently working on a project for the NCT and the Breastfeeding Network, with contributions from the Royal College of Midwives. We try to produce downloadable materials that can be used in antenatal classes and interactive online activities that can be used independently by pregnant women*, new parents, and practitioners who support them. The resources will help them to explore guilt and shame surrounding infant feeding, using my research on the reason/duty distinction together with some other fascinating sociological research from Heather Trickey. The co-investogator on the project is my colleague from Southampton, Laura Dennison, a psychologist who specialises in online health interventions.

LB: In this blog we have recently written about maternal mental health. Do you think that the widespread perception that women have a duty to take every opportunity to benefit their children contributes to making new mothers feel anxious and stressed?

FW: I do believe that this widespread perception has very bad effects on maternal mental health. Of course, I don't have the empirical expertise to prove this. But I have spoken to many mothers who have experienced postnatal depression or anxiety about the pressures they have felt under, in particular about their infant feeding decisions. Many of them spoke to me about the way in which other people (often on social media) interrogated them about their choice to use formula. 

The aftermath of these exchanges, coming at a time when they were extremely vulnerable, was sometimes devastating. Even in the less extreme case, it was clearly deeply upsetting. The assumption that mothers should have to justify their choices in this way springs directly from the assumption that she has a defeasible duty to benefit. And often we don't even need a stranger on the internet to make us feel like bad mothers: many mothers have internalised the mistaken assumption - the idea that it is selfish not to jump on every opportunity no matter how small - and thus suffer from immense guilt and shame.


  1. I think the distinction between defeasible duty and having a reason to is interesting and important, but how would the outcome of the argument fare if we considered positions involving special obligations? I certainly feel like I can have a reason, but not a duty, to run a marathon if it's raising money for cancer research. But if I was raising money for a relative's expensive surgery, I might fell more like it is my duty to run the marathon. Perhaps that is why people feel that breastfeeding is a duty - they have a special obligation towards the newborn, and if breastfeeding is normally good then those facts together constitutes a duty, rather than a reason, to breastfeed?

  2. Thanks for your comment Simon. (I'm afraid I have only just seen it so apologise for the delay in replying.) I do think that we have special obligations to our children. However, these can't amount to a defeasible duty to take every opportunity to benefit our children. Being under such a duty would be intolerably demanding, placing every action of the parent under scrutiny. I agree that there are interesting questions about what exactly the parental duty should look like. But, in any case, it doesn't simply follow from the fact that breastfeeding is beneficial that the mother has a defeasible duty to breastfeed. Much more argument is needed. We also might need to talk about exactly how beneficial breastfeeding is: you might think that you have a duty to run for your relative's surgery to save their life - but what if you'd just raise their IQ and/or reduce their risk of various childhood illness? It also seems to me important that breastfeeding is an extremely intimate act involving the use of the mother's body for extended periods of time. This makes the standards for establishing a defeasible duty very high. (For more detailed response to this kind of objection, see my JME paper If you would like to read it but don't have access, then do email me

    1. Thanks for the reply. I agree that it might come down to exactly how great the benefits of breastfeeding actually are. I suppose it's an empirical matter how great the benefits are, but there might still be some work in determining the threshold for when benefits entails duty in this case. Saving the life seems to obviously entail duty, but other than that, I'm in the dark! And as you say, when the variable of the using of the mothers body comes in to play, the equation gets harder still. Thanks for giving me some interesting viewpoints in this matter - I've never thought about these issues before.

  3. Do you think women feel under pressure to construct a narrative concerning their motherhood? Particularly in early motherhood where there is a constant awareness of the brevity of the period coupled with the difficulties women might be facing? I wonder whether this is something that could be internal (so the mother can have a narrative for herself) or external (what is created on social media especially) and whether there could be anxiety if the two do not match? I wonder also whether there could be anxiety arising from cases where a new mother is not sure what her narrative should be. As she tries to routine one day and demand feed the next, co-sleep one day and be told not to the next, she lacks any schema of 'what sort of mother I am' and it can affect her self-identity.

  4. Thank you so much for your words! I had really worse times, when I began feeding my boy with formula, because I ran out of milk and was unable to breastfeed him longer. I had to explain it to everyone, who saw it and had to convince them all, that I did all the best to guarantee milk support, but it just did´nt worked. Funny fact of this story: this accusations came from obese mothers, too. I never told them, but I don´t think, that they ever think so much about, what they are feeding their babys with, like me. I compared formulas from different companies and decided to go with organic formula without rice syrup, fluoride, GMO and all that stuff, which is unhealthy. For all parents, who have no choice but to feed formula I can recommend this formula. I am proud of me as a mother and every mother, who loves her child and do the best for her little one, should be, too!

    Love and best wishes, Carry


Comments are moderated.