Parthood, Personhood, and Bodily Rights

In a series of papers—”Lady Parts,” “Were You a Part of Your Mother,” and “Nine Months”—Elselijn Kingma develops and defends the parthood view of pregnancy: that human fetuses are literally a part of the gestating woman’s body.

If your mouth is slack and your eyes are squinting, yes, that was my first reaction, too.

If you have moved on from straight-up confusion to worrying about the implications for the abortion debate, that was my second reaction.

But let me invite you to move through reactions one and two and into reaction three: this claim is super interesting, plausible, and makes the case against abortion stronger.

Baby feet in persons hands

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Stage One: Whaaaa?

Kingma studies the metaphysics of pregnancy: what exactly pregnancy is. The standard view—the “container view”—claims that a pregnant woman contains a baby much like Arnold contained the Magic School Bus and all his classmates in “For Lunch.” [1] In the first part of “Were You a Part of Your Mother?” Kingma focuses on issues with the container view. Our “intuitive defense” of the container is:

  1. Babies in utero are humans
  2. Pregnant women are humans
  3. No human can be a part of another human.
  4. Therefore, babies cannot be part of the pregnant women containing them.

But why not? Just because I’m not currently a part of someone else certainly does not show I cannot be a part of someone else. The argument runs the same way when we substitute “human” out for something more specific, like “organism” or “substance.” According to Kingma, the container view begs the question: humans cannot be part of each other because. . .we assume humans cannot be part of each other.

Kingma points to Smith and Broggard’s 2003 paper, “Sixteen Days,” as the best defense of the container view. They argue that because the baby has a “complete, connected external boundary” of its own (one not shared with his gestational mother), then the baby is not part of the mother. But, as Kingma argues in “Nine Months,” this faces a line-drawing problem: where does the baby end and the gestational mother begin?

To illustrate, let us call the gestational mother June and the baby Johnny. The placenta connects Johnny and June, but it is not clear what the placenta is. Is the placenta part of June? Part of Johnny? Its own thing entirely? We find no clear break between Johnny and the placenta. We find no clear break between June and the placenta. It seems placentas are temporary organs that grow during pregnancy and detach sometime after birth. They contain a hefty mix of fetal and maternal tissue. At no place in the placenta can you say, “Aha! Here’s where Johnny clearly ends, and June begins!” The blood vessels are all too bound together. Moreover, cells from Johnny cross into June via the placenta and remain even after Johnny’s birth. Should June become pregnant again, that later baby may even end up with some of Johnny’s cells. As such, the placenta interrupts whatever “complete, connected external boundary” the baby might have: even by Smith and Broggard’s criteria, Johnny looks like he might be part of June.

The view that Johnny is part of June corresponds neatly to many mothers’ experiences of pregnancy and motherhood, including my own: many mothers think of their babies as first part, and later extensions, of ourselves; our “heart walking around outside our bodies” to borrow the phrase from Elizabeth Stone. For a philosophical defense of the parthood view, Kingma relies on several criteria, which I give a very simplified account of below.

First, June’s body works to keep both her and Johnny in a state of homeostasis, something Kingma argues is characteristic of a single, multicellular organism. While Johnny’s body can, at a certain point in pregnancy, extract oxygen, digest food, regulate temperature, and dispose of waste, he relies on June for these functions while in utero. Second, unlike a tapeworm or other parasite, Johnny’s body and June’s body are functionally integrated. Her body makes anatomical and metabolic adjustments to accommodate him. Babies and their gestational mothers only rarely end up at odds with each other. Kingma notes that even competition for resources between mother and child is strikingly limited and suppressed by their functional unity. Third, as already mentioned, the baby is not merely contained within the uterus. He implanted directly into the uterine wall; no clear line delineates the two. Fourth, June’s body tolerates Johnny’s body the way it would any other part of her body. Her immune system does not attack him the way it would a splinter or other foreign object. Kingma argues that while meeting just one of these criteria might not be sufficient to motivate the parthood view, Johnny’s being kept in homeostasis by June’s body, being functionally integrated into June’s body, having no clear line separating him from June’s body, and being recognized by June’s body as part of her body taken together are a very good reason to think that Johnny just is a part of June. [2]

Stage Two: Parthood Sounds Plausible—What Does It Mean for Personhood?

At first pass, this looks very, very bad for the pro-life view. If Johnny just is a part of June, and June does have a right to remove body parts when she so wishes (e.g., cut her hair or nails, have plastic surgery, etc.), doesn’t this settle the debate? June would need no further justification than “my body, my choice” before deciding what to do with the part of her body I have been calling “Johnny.” While pregnant, the argument goes, June is a chimera—an organism that contains two or more cells with distinct DNA—and can do with her body as she wishes.

Worse, if we assume that no person can be a part of another person, wouldn’t Kingma’s parthood view pose a problem for the Equal Rights Argument? Johnny is a part of June until birth. Does that mean he is not a person until birth and thus has no claim to an equal right to life?

Stage Three: Embracing the Conjoinedness of Pregnancy

Contextualizing Kingma’s parthood view within the larger abortion debate highlights the multiple kinds of embodied existence persons might have. In addition to male and female, tall and short, abled and disabled bodily existences, there are singleton and conjoined embodied existences. Conjoined twins only know conjoinedness. Most of us live most of our lives knowing singletonedness. But for brief periods, all of us experience conjoinedness, either as unborn babies or as pregnant mothers.

Given the reality of conjoinedness, a parthood view of pregnancy like Kingma’s cannot be used to deny fetal personhood; just as Kingma argues that we have no reason to grant the assumption that one human cannot be part of another, we have no reason to grant the assumption that two persons cannot be parts of each other. Moreover, based on our understanding of conjoined twins, we have good reason to think that one person can be part of another, or that two persons can share one body, or that two persons can be embodied in one human organism. Thus, merely showing that Johnny is part of June does not settle the abortion debate. The Equal Rights Argument defends Johnny’s right to life as much as June’s right to life, for being in a state of conjoinedness with another person does not undermine your personhood or your fundamental equal right to life. When I draw the equal right to life circle, each conjoined twin goes inside it.

Likewise, given the reality of conjoinedness, a parthood view of pregnancy does not automatically justify a strong account of bodily rights, such as you might find in sovereign zone arguments. If there are multiple kinds of embodied existences, then what counts as respecting bodily autonomy for singletons might not count as respecting bodily autonomy for conjoined persons. While I, as a singleton, may have the right to decide to amputate my arm, cut my hair, or have rhinoplasty, one conjoined twin likely may not do so at the expense of, or against the will of, the other conjoined twin. Even though one part of the shared body may respond only to one twin, what happens to their shared body affects them both. Abby and Brittany Hensel, for example, each control one side of their conjoined body, but—despite having separate stomachs—Brittany experiences Abby’s stomachaches and Abby experiences Brittany’s. Does one sister have a right to eat as she wishes knowing that her twin will suffer the consequences? I don’t think so. Of course, both twins do have a right to bodily autonomy: I have no right to prevent Abby and Brittany from seeking out morally permissible medical procedures, even perhaps medically unnecessary amputation. But “bodily autonomy” for conjoined persons will never be about “my body,” for there is only “our body.”

Thus, embracing the parthood view of pregnancy strengthens the pro-life response to bodily rights arguments. The person who makes a bodily rights argument may be exactly correct—with regards to singleton bodily autonomy. But in pregnancy, the rules change. Pregnancy constitutes a time of conjoinedness, where mother and baby share a body. We must instead understand persons’ rights to their shared body when asking what a woman may or may not do during pregnancy. Grounding a right to abortion in singleton bodily autonomy fails from the outset. A right to abortion would have to be grounded in conjoined bodily autonomy, and I see no way to do that. If one twin may not unilaterally decide to remove her sister from their shared body to make herself a singleton, then a pregnant mother may not unilaterally decide to remove her baby from their shared body to return to singletonhood.

Above all, the parthood view can help us build empathy for women experiencing unwanted pregnancies. During pregnancy, a woman’s existence as an embodied person drastically changes. She no longer faces the world as a singleton, but rather a conjoined person. And unlike a conjoined twin, for whom her twin’s existence and personhood is patently obvious, and thus the reality of her conjoined state is undeniable, the embodied shift that occurs during pregnancy is far murkier. For at least the first several weeks of the pregnant woman’s existence in her new state, she may have no experience of the other(s) to whom she finds herself joined, at least beyond discomfort and physical illness. She finds what she can only ever remember being her body no longer just belongs to her. “Jarring” and “disorienting” don’t begin to properly describe her experience.

Stage Four: I Hope Parthood is True

I do not know if the parthood view is correct or not. I do find it beautiful and poetic, and that alone makes it more plausible in my book. I love the idea that we all spend part of our lives in a state of real union with another person; I love the idea that I was not merely in my mother but a part of her, as my children were part of me.

Far from undermining the pro-life position, the parthood view strengthens it. We have clear examples of persons who share a body to prove that parthood does not undermine fetal personhood. Likewise, understanding the real change in the mother’s embodied existence shows why bodily rights arguments are tempting but ultimately fail.


[1.] Smith and Broggard (2003, “Sixteen days,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 28(1):45-78) describe the container view as a pregnant woman containing the baby the way a refrigerator contains a carton of yogurt. Please do not use this description in dialogues. Please do not compare women to appliances.

[2.] Does this mean that pregnant women might have four eyes, 20 toes—under certain circumstances—a penis? To illustrate this with an analogy, do conjoined twins have four arms, four legs, four eyes, etc.? In a sense, yes. The body that they share has all those parts. But at the same time, we conceptually carve up conjoined bodies such that the body parts which respond to one twin “belong” to her more than they “belong” her sister. So, we might say one twin “has” two arms and shares a liver with her twin while also recognizing that the body they share has four arms and one liver. So yes, the body currently shared by a pregnant woman and her baby has four eyes, 20 toes, etc., but we conceptually carve up the conjoined body to say that the woman has two eyes and a vagina while her baby has two eyes and a penis. When speaking of conjoined-ness, we have to stop thinking as singletons and assuming a one-to-one correspondence of material bodies and persons.

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Elizabeth Lollar writes under a pen name. She has a master's degree in philosophy and teaches ethics at a small university. Her ever-patient and ever-loving husband stays up until the wee hours of the morning listening to her talk through whatever philosophical puzzle currently prevents her from sleeping. She has four children, three of whom are standing before the throne of God and interceding on her behalf.

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