Over the past few years, many have asked me to clarify what I mean with self-sacrifice, as I have published about this, drawing upon my PhD study. Sometimes I feel that it is more urgent to explain what it is not and why I think it is a meaningful and relevant concept. I am afraid that those who ask a brief, clear cut answer, are let down. For my entire view everybody will need to read my book. But for those who want a first entry, I have created this page.
My paper ‘Liberating the Pregnant Body: disempowerment and disembodiment in maternity care’ on my new research project on a care ethical view of maternity was enthusiastically responded to by the audience of the Global Carework Summit in Toronto last week. One response came from a mother present together with her baby. She responded as a carework researcher and a mother. She had never realized, and was now stunned at, how little she had thought about the pregnant body with regard to carework, even during her own recent pregnancy. Like myself she was amazed at how it is largely lacking in philosophy, sociology, and political (care) ethics.
Symbolically, for 9 months a group of committed researchers cooperated closely to write a grant proposal for a research project into ethical controversies in the mother-midwife relation during childbirth. This CARE-study (Controversies surrounding Autonomy and Responsibility: a care-Ethical study into the mother-midwife relation) is now granted, which means that a young and gifted researcher, philosopher and midwife Rodante van der Waal, is funded to perform her four year PhD study. Next to an empirical research into the advancements of respectful maternity care, the project involves a philosophical study into the ontology and history of pregnancy, childbirth and midwifery care. The project will be performed at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht, The Netherlands) under the supervision of prof dr Carlo Leget. I am proud to be involved in this as co-supervisor.
In preparing my lecture for next week’s conference ‘Concerning Maternity’ I will draw upon Sarah LaChance Adams’ book Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, & What a ‘Good’ Mother Would Do. The book’s main point, that mothering (as well as parenting) is always full of conflicting values and ambivalent being, remains important and deserving of more attention. The way in which society, but also researchers and ethicists, often seem to have a clearcut idea on how mothers should behave, dividing them quickly into ‘bad’, mad’, or ‘good’, ignores how deeply conflicted mothers (and parents in general) might be on what a ‘good’ mother (parent) might do. LaChance Adams’ approach of bringing mothers’ voices that express their own experiences in a dialogue with care ethics and (phenomenological) philosophers, is fruitful in understanding the depth of the internal and external conflicts of mothers (and parents).
The point of departure is a wonderful presentation of the mothers’ own expressions of their experiences, for which LaChance Adams draws upon a vast amount of empirical research. This is an excellent overview of the key problem of ambivalence. It is not often the case that researchers in the field of maternity draw upon care ethics and phenomenology. LaChance Adams presents a broad range of care ethicists next to the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone de Beauvoir. These sources are helpful for a multilayered analysis of maternal ambivalence. LaChance Adams is loyal to phenomenology by aiming for a deep understanding of this phenomenon, instead of seeing it as a problem that needs to be solved.
A less strong point is how Lachance Adams quite closely connects her own search for understanding maternal ambivalence to the philosophers’ views, by paying (too) little attention to their own key problem. Thereby she risks the incorrect suggestion that their philosophical undertaking was about maternal ambivalence as well. Nevertheless the book is an important and good read on a most relevant and undertheorized topic.
The research network Concerning Maternity has organized a third international conference on the 7th of May, where we will analyze and explore the lived experience of both pregnant and maternal subjectivity, as well as that of midwifery, in order to consider the question: what are pregnant and maternal subjectivities and how can maternity care attune to them adequately?
With Stella Villarmea (Spain), Mavis Kirkham (Scotland), Jonna Bornemark (Sweden), Lisa Baraitser (UK), Beatrijs Smulders (NL), Bahareh Goodarzi (NL), Neske Beks (NL) and others. Chaired by Rodante van der Waal, PhD student, philosopher and midwifery student (NL).
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During the last days of March I had the honor of giving the key note address at the colloquium ‘Quelle place pour les proches dans le soin?’ organized by the Swiss Network of Ethics of Care (SNEC), in Lausanne, Switzerland. I learned that the French word ‘les proches’ and the Dutch word ‘de naasten’ are more adequate to indicate those who are relevant for clients, patients or residents than the English terms ‘partner and family’. In care ethics and many other disciplines the idea gains ground that these close ones cannot be ignored in health care. Fot this it takes a critical look at how health care is usually organized. Many examples were given of ‘les proches’ being ignored, informed too late or misinformed, etc. A field of often painful and irrepairable experiences that requires professionals and institutions to become more caring, also in the wider relational network.
With great interest I have read this study by Elizabeth Newnham and Mavis Kirkham who develop a care ethical outlook on midwifery as adequate alternative to bioethical and medical emphasis on respect for autonomy. The authors argue convincingly that the concept of autonomy is as such inadequate in ethical questions in midwifery care. Not only is a relational instead of an individualistic view required, as the pregnant woman is two-in-one, also autonomy does not represent the actual obstetric practice that already focuses on the unborn and is not free from paternalism. Hence attention and arguments for autonomy in everyday midwifery practice seem to be primarily rhetorical. An adequate alternative, the authors claim, is care ethics as it uncovers power relations (instead of covering them up) and focuses on concrete relational practices rather than abstract principles. A view that importantly underpins our research.
Click here to read the article that I recently co-authored with colleague Merel Visse on responsibility in care. We believe that care ethics offers various important critical views on caring responsibility that mutually complement each other. However, by drawing upon the phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion we believe these views can still be complemented by looking more at the passive, fragile, decentring aspect of responsibility. If we take it more literally, as being a response, it comes second to something else, to something that has preceded it and to which it responds. Responsibility might be less a one-person-task, a personal assignment, an individual burden, if we look at it this way.
Each year I teach the introductory course on care ethics during which we do a close reading of this groundbreaking book. Joan Tronto lays the groundwork for thinking about care as practice, as morality, and as political orientation. Her analysis of how ‘moral boundaries’ prevent us from interweaving the public and the private, moral theory and everyday practical ethics, and morality and politics, inspires me every time. Liminality, to me and drawing upon Tronto’s thought, would mean moving back and forth between others and myself, between society and personal sphere, between what I do on a daily basis and what I have learned from philosophy, between morality and political views. This movement in the space between us and its repercussions for care, have been beautifully expressed in this sentence:
“Responsiveness suggests a different way to understand the needs of others rather than to put our selves into their position. Instead, it suggests that we consider the other’s poistion as that other expresses it. Thus, one is engaged from the standpoint of the other, but not simply by presuming that the other is exactly like the self. From such a perspective, we may well imagine that questions of otherness would be more adequately addressed than they are in current moral frameworks that presume that people are interchangeable.
Adequate responsiveness requires attentiveness, which again shows the way in which these moral elements of care are intertwined.”
(Tronto, 1993, p. 136)
Red Clocks is a disturbing but all too probable dystopia: a fictional frightening American society for women in which only a few subsequent presidents have successfully passed laws that restrict reproductive freedom to a minimum and reverse women’s rights to an abortion. A pink wall has been built on the American-Canadian border to prevent women from having an abortion there. Illegal abortion is considered murder. Soon single parent adoption will be prohibited too thanks to the ‘Every child deserves two’-law. Women in this society struggle with every aspect of motherhood: having given it up, trying to become one, trying to get rid of it, trying to survive it. Women’s lives are found to be interwoven along the lines of these struggles and ancient knowledge becomes the target of a modern witch hunt. Sacrifices in this world are all over the place, but – not surprisingly – mainly brought by and expected and demanded from women. Intriguing! See a review in the Guardian here.