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Laura Purdy on pregnant women's obligations1

© Peter Zohrab 2011

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(This was originally written as an essay for a course in Bioethics at Victoria University of Wellington in August 2011)

(N.B. The 738-page volume in which Purdy's article appears is entirely devoid of any reference to fathers, according to the index, and this is, arguably, an indication of how Feminist-dominated and anti-male Western academia is. To a certain extent, however, that is an indictment of the index, because Purdy's article itself contains the word "father" at least twice (p. 68) – in a negative context, of course!)


0. Introduction

I argue that Purdy does not arrive at the correct conclusion about pregnant women's obligations. Because of lack of space, I do not argue for any particular alternative conclusion.



1. Laura Purdy's argument

1.0 Purdy's argument is interesting and makes some good factual points. However, if writing a good philosophical article requires that one counter the arguments of one's adversaries, as in a chess game, then hers is not a good philosophical article.

1.1 Purdy maintains that pregnant women are indeed fetal containers, but that fetuses are also part of women's bodies. Purdy defends women's right to control what happens to and in their bodies against proponents of the view that women's choices should sometimes be subordinated to the welfare of fetuses.

1.2 She states that the right to control what happens to and in our bodies is a keystone of liberal society, and claims that pregnancy is experienced only by women.

1.3 Purdy states that women's right to control what happens to and in their bodies has sometimes been overridden by doctors and judges. She gives various examples of such cases. She complains that

... if the same things were being done to the average middle-class white man on the street, there would be public outrage .

1.4 She points out that what happens in and to women's bodies can adversely affect any fetuses inside it, and that the only way to get at a fetus is through the mother's body. She gives various examples of ways that the fetus can be harmed before or after conception.

1.5 One of the strongest points that Purdy makes is her list of the many actions which pregnant women should either take or avoid taking, because of the vulnerability of the fetus within them. This amounts to an (albeit usually voluntary) imposition on the woman for a period of up to nine months.

1.6 At this point, she abandons her rational, philosophical style of argument and resorts to emotionalism. She accuses her conservative opponents of failing to "recognize that women's rights might sometimes trump considerations about fetal welfare." She reminds us, in more emotive language, that "the sacrifices exacted by a well-run pregnancy may be considerable," and states that they deserve recognition and perhaps even compensation. She mentions such problems as the drug-addicted mother suddenly going cold turkey, and the mother in a workplace containing hazardous chemicals having to lose a good job because of possible effects on a fetus. She concludes this passage by stating:

Our anger rightly flares in response to those who take these situations for granted.

1.7 Resuming a more rational tone, Purdy also distances herself from more radical Feminists, such as Barbara Katz Rothman. Unlike Rothman, Purdy considers that there can be conflicts of interest between mother and child, despite the fact that they both agree that the fetus is part of the mother, rather than a separate being. She cites the example of Siamese twins, which she apparently considers to be "one bit of flesh", in cases where their separation would possibly mutilate or kill one or both of them.

1.8 Purdy then turns to considering how these problems should be solved. Her starting-point is that women should receive the same respect as her mythical "middle-class white men" would expect.

1.9 She phrases the issue as follows:

The question before us is a special case of the first general moral question: what do we owe others? More particularly, what do we owe others who do not yet exist? And, most particularly, what legally enforceable duties towards such future persons can be exacted of us?

1.10 In order to answer this question, Purdy seeks analogies to the mother-fetus relationship. She contrasts court-orders which override the rights of the mother in favour of the rights of the fetus with the absence of any court orders ordering organ donations between relatives or ordering procedures which override the rights of the mother in favour of the rights of an actual child. Purdy states that some participants in this debate are implicitly saying that mothers owe their fetuses more than they owe to their children, and that some participants are claiming the opposite.

1.11 Next Purdy considers the point of view that the mother-fetus relationship is too special to be really analogous to other relationships, and that this imposes special obligations on the mother. She criticises the unnamed protagonists of this position for not providing arguments to back up their claim, and for not addressing "the question of limits."

1.12 Then Purdy lists her own four basic assumptions, as follows:

  1. dependence is a pervasive characteristic of human society;

  2. because of their location and state, fetuses are dependent on women in an unusually fundamental and continuous way;

  3. fetuses are not moral persons;

  4. they will probably become such persons some time after birth.

1.13 Purdy states that we have moral duties towards those who are dependent on us, and that mothers have duties towards fetuses which are just as great as the ones they have towards children, for the reason that fetuses will be affected after birth by what happens to them in the womb – irrespective of the fact that fetuses are not moral persons (in her view). However, if mothers do not have to submit to bodily invasions to save a dying child, they should also not have to submit to bodily invasions to save a fetus.

1.14 She cites the case In re George, where the Court refused even to order a natural father's name be released to a man with leukemia who needed a compatible bone marrow donor – let alone order that the father be tested for compatibility or that he donate bone marrow if found compatible. She compares that case with cases where Courts have orderd that pregnant women undergo Caesareans.

1.15 Purdy differentiates fetuses from children on various grounds. In contrast to the situation with children, Purdy states, it is permissible to abort fetuses, because fetuses are not moral persons. The fetus also may not survive long enough to actually become what Purdy calls a "person" (i.e. a child). Also, Purdy states that we are less certain of the medical consequences of certain states of affairs for the fetus than for the child.

1.16 From this point on (about half-way through her article), Purdy lauches into a one-sided case -- like a lawyer for women -- which aims to undermine the competence of the medical profession and the moral right of the legal system, and of society as a whole, to impose any treatment on women on behalf of the fetus – even if, in some cases, there is a moral case to do so. There is not enough space here to go into every detail of her case.

1.17 Purdy states that the medical uncertainties regarding the consequences of certain circumstances for the fetus increases the burden of proof on those who would override the pregnant mother's wishes for reasons related to the well-being of the fetus. Until medicine has acheived a higher level of knowledge about such issues, Purdy contends, the evidence for medical interference with a women's body cannot reach the threshold which would make such interference justifiable. In addition, she states that certain medical decisions are value-judgements, rather than strictly medical in nature – such as decisions as to how to weigh up the relative importance of various sorts of risk to mother and fetus, when deciding which procedure to opt for.

1.18 On the legal side of things, Purdy complains that the relatively short time-span of pregnancy deprives women of some of the legal safeguards, including appeal rights, that are available to other categories of people who can have court-ordered bodily invasions.

1.19 One major argument which Purdy develops relates to ways in which society is at fault for not preventing the pregnancy situations from coming into being which are then seen to necessitate medical intervention. Medical welfare, she claims, is insufficient for all expectant mothers to be able to access all the medical care they need. She says there is also insufficient help available for pregnant drug-addicts and abusers of alcohol and tobacco. Society also does not do enough, she claims, to stop people using these substances in the first place. Purdy's argument is that society has caused the relevant pregnancy problems in the first place, and should therefore not punish mothers by invading their bodies.

1.20 Purdy extrapolates from the present situation into a possible future, where impositions on pregant women might become even more extreme. Another hypothetical scenario she contemplates is a more caring society, where adults and children are required to do more for each other (e.g. organ-donation), which would provide a context in which the invasions of women's bodies currently taking place would, in Purdy's view, become acceptable.

1.21 Purdy concedes that there are some circumstances where the fetus's needs morally override the mother's rights over her own body. However, she denies that this moral imperative should ever be legally enforceable. She concludes as follows:

Because women's interests are in constant danger of being undervalued, I believe that in cases of conflict our inclination should be to grant them priority. It would follow from this that no legal duty to submit to medical advice should be recognized .



2. Does she arrive at the correct conclusion?

2.1 There are two ways of answering this question: one is to say whether one is emotionally satisfied with her conclusion, and the other is to examine the validity of the reasoning which leads up to her conclusion. I will answer it in both ways, starting off by saying that I am not emotionally satisfied with her conclusion, which is that women legally should be able to do whatever they like in the relevant context. Feminism has moved from a demand for so-called "equality" to a vaguer and more easily manipulable demand for so-called "equity" and now (in practice) to demands that women should be able to do whatever they like, with respect to various issues. This is tyranny.

2.2 I will now examine the validity of the reasoning which leads up to her conclusion. There are two ways of doing this: one is to follow her line of reasoning internally, and evaluate to what extent it leads to her preferred conclusion, and the other is to think laterally – about the issues that she has not addressed and the counter-arguments that she has ignored or not thought of. I will take both of these approaches to her reasoning.

2.3 Purdy's contention (see 1.1 above) that fetuses are part of women's bodies is crucial to her argument, but she does not support it by argument or evidence. The only evidence that they are part of women's bodies that I can imagine are the location of the fetus within the mother and the presence of the umbilical cord. However, air, psychoactive and nutritional substances enter and pass through a person's body without anyone claiming that that fact makes them part of that person's body. Moreover, a fetus's DNA is obviously systematically different from that of the mother. If DNA evidence can be used to establish the identity of a criminal, then it can also be used to establish the separate identity of a fetus.

2.4 In 1.2 Purdy ignores the fact that fetuses experience pregnancy from the inside and fathers experience pregnancy's effects and consequences on their relationship, emotional state, lifestyle, and eventually on their finances and legal responsibilities. In other words, she is arguably sexist.

2.5 In 1.3 Purdy makes one of several, Feminist, unsubstantiated claims about male privilege and female disadvantage. It is a fundamental stupidity of Feminism that it confuses the fact that most powerful decision-makers are/have been male with the unstated, distinct and false assumption that males usually or always make decisions that favour males over females . In fact, Feminism would never have made any progress at all over the past couple of centuries if it had not been for male decisons in favour of Feminist policies. Moreover, men are – and possibly always have been – arguably discriminated against, and the fact that this is not widely known in academia has everything to do with the power-structures of academia and nothing to do with the facts.

2.6 In 1.6 Purdy preys on the fact that it is almost impossible for a male to succeed in academia nowadays without being deferential to female emotions. I find it outrageous that she can get a purportedly academic article published which expresses her explicit anger, when totally professional, anti-Feminist articles have almost no hope of publication.

2.7 In 1.10 Purdy makes an interesting argument, contrasting legal approaches to fetuses with legal approaches to children. However, she is in too much of a hurry to reach her Female Supremacist conclusion to take account of some obvious counterarguments. Fathers and Society at large have an interest in the welfare of the fetus, and it is hard for them to protect fetuses, in a way that does not apply to children. Moreover, the fetus is inside the mother for only nine months – less than one tenth of the average life-span, so mothers can be seen as mere temporary guardians of the fetus on behalf of fathers and of the future of the whole human race. It is true that men do not have to suffers the detrimental aspects of pregnancy, but men suffer a lot of other disadvantages, as can easily be seen on the internet, although this fact is largely censored in academia.

2.8 In 1.11 Purdy addresses one possible counter-argument to her case, but this is a weak point in her argument, because it is hard to assess the argument she is attacking, when she does not give a reference which would enable one to see if she has summarised it fairly.

2.9 In 1.12 Purdy states, but does not argue for, her assumption that fetuses are not moral persons. This constitutes a weakness in her argument, because the default position must surely be that fetuses – since they develop into persons – must already be persons, unless there is a compelling argument to the contrary. This is John Finnis' position, and one could note that a standard dictionary definition of "person", e.g.:

a human being regarded as an individual

does not obviously rule out fetuses.

Discrimination against people on the basis of age is called ageism, and could be likened to the Nazis' classification of various types of people as "sub-human". One might, indeed, be tempted to retaliate against this largely Feminist ageism by constructing an argument that women are not moral persons.

2.10 In 1.14 Purdy draws the wrong conclusion from the case In re George. Adoption involves a contract, and the very point of having a contract is to prevent people from later changing their minds or breaching one of the conditions of the contract. If the contract stipulated that the natural father (and the natural mother, presumably) were not to be compelled by the adoptee to help him, or even to be made known to him, then it is a fundamental duty of any state's courts to enforce such a contract. By contrast, becoming deliberately or recklessly pregnant implies agreeing to a contract to look after the child/fetus from conception onwards. Therefore the two situations are not analogous, and the courts in the latter case have an arguable duty to intervene when necessary, in contrast to their duty not to intervene in the former case.

2.11 Purdy's arguments from 1.16 onwards are not decisive, one way or the other. After all, it is just a fact of life that Society is not perfect, and that medicine and the Law have their limits. She makes some interesting points, but everything hangs on whether fathers, fetuses and Society have any rights as regards a pregnancy, on whether a fetus is part of a woman's body, and on whether fetuses are moral persons – and Purdy has proved her position on none of these points.




Purdy has not established that women's interests are in constant danger of being undervalued, or that no legal duty to submit to medical advice should be recognized.




Finnis, John, "Abortion and Health Care Ethics," Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer (eds.), Bioethics: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2 ed., 2006.

Pearsall, Judy, "The Concise Oxford English Dictionary", Oxford: Oxford University Press, tenth edition, revised, 2002.

Purdy, Laura M., "Are Pregnant Women Fetal Containers?", Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer (eds.), Bioethics: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2 ed., 2006.




Peter Douglas Zohrab

Latest Update

24 August 2019