Pregnancy as Harm?

It's difficult for some to think of pregnancy as harmful to a human being. After all, it is something naturally occurring and the reason for our existence. But since 1942 state and federal courts have consistently found that pregnancies are bodily injuries and should be treated as such in criminal matters. As a society we should think of pregnancies along the same lines as a serious injury -- such as breaking a leg.

Legally it is hard to refute that pregnancy isn't a harm. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that pregnancy should be considered a bodily injury when assessing rape cases. A California justice has gone on the record by saying pregnancy "involves a significant bodily impairment primarily affecting a woman's health and well being." Our society needs to show more respect, patience and understanding to women that are being harmed.

Consider the way in which as a society we treat someone recovering from a serious fracture. During the immediate aftermath of the injury friends and extended family come in to assist both the injured and her family. This assistance is not just the sharing of meals, doing of errands or assisting with chores. It also extends to the increased presence of company and concern with mental well-being. Following the immediate physical healing, we are aware of the longer-term implications for physical, emotional and psychological well-being.

Similarly, pregnancy involves a number of physical, emotional, and psychological changes. Our society recognizes some of these changes (weight gain, frequent urination, an increase in irritability and forgetfulness), while passing over others (colostrum leakage, depression, dexterity changes). Still other potential changes are considered abnormalities or "high-risk" conditions (gestational diabetes, ectopic pregnancies). The ongoing shift in upcoming social role for mothers who will raise their children from being in one social role (architect, chef, professor) to another (mom, mummy, mother) that can feel constrictive, limited and alienating. Other changes can occur if the pregnancy results in a miscarriage, abortion or adoption. And many of them continue for long after the pregnancy "term" has ended. It is an unfortunate truth that pregnancy is an uncomfortable, messy and potentially life-changing time period. And in our culture we often overlook the struggles of pregnancy.

An under-recognized struggle of pregnancy for many women is a sense of alienation from her own body. Throughout the pregnancy her body is changing, growing and acting differently. Further, following quickening her body apparently is acting upon her: the movements, kicks and jolts are from within yet done without her will -- by another. The unexpected can occur as her weight and space occupied change. Where previously she always could fit between the chair and wall, now she cannot; she must not know her body. When sitting sheunexpectedly discovers the sensation of her belly touching her knee. Her body is her own -- after all, she feels it -- but it appears and occurs in moments unexpected.

Even the language of pregnancy is one of alienation. The woman is "expecting" a child. This passive waiting -- as if waiting for letter to arrive -- is at odds with the active and (to the woman pregnant for the first time) unexpected changes that are occurring to, from and with her. For women whose experiences of pregnancy includes medical intervention, the alienation begins even earlier. From the monitoring of fertility cycles, basal temperatures and cervical mucus, the woman's body becomes something mechanical, alien, apart, something to be manipulated forbest practices and outcome.

When we start to think about pregnancy as harm, we begin to see for the first time that all of society -- all of us were born from pregnant women, after all -- owes a responsibility for past, present and future harms. But what is that responsibility? We all need to be aware of the special vulnerabilities of the pregnant -- not only in the physical sense of encouraging pregnant women from refraining from sky diving or riding roller coasters, or recognizing a woman's need by giving up of a seat on public transportation, but also in the emotional and intellectual sense of recognizing the othering that is occurring. As we focus more on the various aspects of life that are changed by pregnancy, we should come to an understanding of the vulnerabilities of the woman and act on a social responsibility to address these vulnerabilities exposed by the harm of pregnancy.

We should have a society-wide discussion about the needs of women who are pregnant. A real community recognizes those in its midst who are harmed and comes together to assist them. The nature of this assistance seems to go beyond the minimal to a larger assistance during and after pregnancy as women come to understand the new relationship they have with their bodies. Much of this support will likely go beyond the physical to the emotional and psychological. Some of it will entail changes made to ourselves -- such as being aware of the uncertain nature of a pregnant woman's sense of self. Perhaps the best outcome of such discussions would be the realization that the harms of pregnancy change not just a woman; they also change all of us.

Rory E. Kraft, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at York College of Pennsylvania. His work focus on ethics and philosophy with children. A longer version of this was published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.

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