What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human

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Agnes R. Howard
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , March
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How have we thought about pregnancy in US prenatal care throughout the years? In Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us About Being Human, Agnes R. Howard argues that pregnancy communicates an ethic of “embodied generosity” which can frame human identity within an ethic of mutual dependency through virtuous practice (3). Howard supports the core of her argument with Aristotelian virtue ethics, while elucidating historic ideologies regarding women and pregnancy through an analysis of pertinent prenatal guidebooks. She describes this as “a kind of archaeology” (21), digging up the ways US pregnancy culture has changed or remained the same throughout the years.

After providing a historical backdrop on theories of reproduction and scientific advancement in embryology, prenatal care, and birth practices in chapters 1 and 2, Howard highlights the behavioral expectations placed on childbearing women. She explores this through the historical emergence of hospital-based care, noting parallels between shifts in behavioral expectations on childbearing women with how obstetrics became more popular in the 20th century as midwifery waned. The historical foundation provided in these first two chapters brings forward an important theme to Howard’s overarching argument. This theme is pregnancy as work, and Howard intends to replace the errant belief that pregnancy is primarily a passive experience for the woman. This theme is expanded in chapter 3 with a hermeneutic of pregnancy that communicates the connection between a childbearing woman’s awareness of baby-in-utero and how the woman subsequently shifts her behavior based on this awareness. For Howard, this connection between awareness and behavior witnesses to an ethic of mutual dependence and the practice of virtue on behalf of another. Howard argues that this “embodied generosity” (through relationality and virtue) is foundational to human existence (93).

Chapter 4 delves deeper into the action-oriented interpretation of pregnancy as work, adding another layer to Howard’s emphasis on the significance of virtue. Although Howard provides ample examples of what “work” is regarding pregnancy-related activities which “protect and provide” for the developing child, it would aid the reader to have been given an explicit definition of “work” (97). Put differently, the “moral work” (23) of pregnancy is so crucial to her argument that a theological definition of “work” could support her argument with greater clarity and nuance. Of course, this could be a theological gap better filled with a biblical foundation which could be, quite simply, outside the scope of this book.

Howard’s argument that pregnancy can teach us about our high human calling of becoming people of “embodied generosity” culminates in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 5, Howard explores Aristotelian virtue ethics and its connection with prudence, charity, temperance, generosity, hospitality, and courage through a renewed virtue paradigm for pregnancy. Chapter 6 expands this virtue ethic for the childbearing woman to church and community by contrasting relational dependence with the dominant US value of autonomous living. To enhance her argument, Howard could also highlight the vibrant array of diaspora communities within US society, some of which retain their own communal worldview in contrast to the individualism of a typical US worldview. Like pregnancy, these communities also show “our reliance on relationship, generosity, and physical presence” (22).

At this point in the progression of Howard’s argument, the selection of “mutual dependence” over the term “interdependence” in popularized psychological literature is noteworthy. A developing child in utero and his/her mother are not “equals” in an interdependent relationship despite there being a liminal reciprocity through a sharing of cells, placenta, and experience (170). This distinction is effective to her overall argument: rightly recognizing the need for “embodied generosity”—not only toward a developing child in utero, but also society at large—could elicit right action on behalf of one another’s becoming. Howard’s virtue-based paradigm for human becoming may provide a springboard for further theological discussions regarding human identity and what it means to “bear . . . infirmity on behalf of another’s becoming” (135). Howard concludes her argument with practical observations and suggestions for supporting a culture of mutual dependence and virtuous care, limiting these practical steps to US pregnancy culture. This effectively grounds her argument into contemporary realities, thereby inviting the reader to action (183).

Overall, Howard’s writing style mitigates polemical debates relating to abortion, unwanted pregnancies, infertility, and pregnancy loss without dismissing their realities, thereby demonstrating that theologically rich conversations regarding pregnancy can be conducted with poise. In these ways, Howard’s research adds to the wider body of knowledge in virtue ethics, theological anthropology, and, more practically, implications to a US paradigm shift in pregnancy culture. Although Howard’s argument is immersed in a Christian worldview, she writes for a wider audience by elevating the female experience of pregnancy and extending its value to society at large. Overall, Howard’s argument is thought provoking; her method is innovative, and the implications of pregnancy as both guide and witness to renewed understanding of the human calling to become people of “embodied generosity” encourages the reader into further theological reflection.

Howard’s alternative hermeneutic of pregnancy for contemporary prenatal subculture within dominant US society has the potential to reshape our thinking, elicit action, confront the pitfalls of autonomy, and spur us toward a renewed understanding of human flourishing. According to Howard, this renewed understanding of human flourishing is a spending of oneself on behalf of another, thereby renaming the one who was once called “stranger,” “beloved” (125).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Joy Fowler is a PhD student at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Agnes R. Howard has been teaching history and humanities in college settings for nearly two decades, moving recently from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, to Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, where she teaches in Christ College, the honors college. Her research focuses on the history of childbirth, the culture of pregnancy, and women's health movements in the United States.



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