Unit Seven: Religion and Unintended Pregnancy

By Maia Yang

Hi everyone! I’m writing this blog on Tuesday’s readings. I think these readings are good examples of why ethnography is such a valuable method for studying bioethics. In his article Moral Experience and Ethical Reflection, Arthur Kleinman suggests that ethnography offers a way to position oneself at the liminal space between worlds so that one could observe these worlds closely while maintaining a degree of separation. Kleinman’s argument reminded me of a Chinese proverb—the bystander sees clearer than the player. Ideally, an ethnographer will not be too absorbed or too distant from the world they are studying, which offers them a unique position to look at how macroscopic moral dilemmas are processed microscopically and to compare local and global ethical quandaries. But we say that no one is perfect, so to what extent can ethnographers realize this ideal and perfect their practice?

As social animals, we largely measure our value through how other people perceive us, and we as a collective influence each other’s experiences, beliefs, and relationships. Our moral lives are shaped not only by “religious and secular standards,” but also by the environment we exist in, by our culture, our socioeconomic status, our relationships, the roles we play in different settings, etc. (Kleinman 72). This means that different societies could process the same issue in drastically different ways. Why, then, do we struggle so much to establish universal values that can account for varying local experiences? Are we trying to understand how other people think or can we say that we are being too nosy? Why do we spend so much time trying to find societal patterns and standards rather than allowing them to happen organically, and if we did manage to find such standards, will they really help us understand other societies?

Another issue that gets in the way of analyzing moral and ethical dilemmas is the conflict between official and local accounts and the lack of acknowledgment of local opinions on the state level. Kleinman brings up Veena Das who suggests that the state may cover up, ignore, or reframe local moral and ethical problems. I relate with her argument because I am from Xinjiang, China, a province known for its political and social unrest. If you look up the word ‘Xinjiang’ right now, you will see headlines ranging from riots to forced labor to Muslim concentration camps. However, these information are strictly forbidden in China—the media does not talk about them, the state does not directly address such problems, and the people do not dare to talk about them. Having lived in that province for the most part of her life, my mother has developed the habit of deleting texts with sensitive words (words that potentially can be labeled as anti-government) right after sending them. When people do not dare to speak up or even acknowledge that there is an issue, how will their voices ever be heard?

Although ethnography is time-consuming and cannot prove causality like experiments, I think it is nice to have such a human way of studying humans in our increasingly industrial and cold world. In our second reading, Dr. Seeman and his fellow scholars’ research shows how ethnography can shed light on the way religion is received and used by people in the real world.  

In many of our previous readings, we have seen that across different religions and cultures, children are seen as blessings to the mother and the family. The reading Blessing unintended pregnancy explores the perspective of homeless mothers whose pregnancies can be labeled as unplanned and/or unintended. However, we should note that the dichotomy of “intended” and “unintended” pregnancy does a poor job of describing the nuances of childbearing experiences, which is why this research is so valuable (Seeman et al. 30). Dr. Seeman and his fellow scholars did an ethnographical research on homeless African American mothers to better analyze the “planning and intentionality” of motherhood/pregnancy and how it is influenced by religion and spirituality (Seeman et al. 30).

The homeless shelter they examined, Naomi’s House, claims to be largely non-religious and tries to help women become “economically and emotionally” independent through strict rules and programs that foster planning and self-management skills. Most residents, while recognizing the hardships of shelter life, still consider their pregnancies as “meant to be” or “a blessing” (Seeman 34). As someone who is raised by a scientific and secular household, I am surprised to see that some women who got pregnant while using contraceptives describe their unintended pregnancies as something beyond the perceptions of human agency, that the pregnancy is meant to be (God’s will). I would most likely blame the failure of medicine or technology for such situations. Many of these women also treat the pregnancy and/or baby as the impetus for them to “start over”, work harder, or even finish their education (Seeman et al. 36). In their cases, we can see how people use religion with flexibility to fit their situations and give their experiences meaning—although most of these women are not opposed to using contraceptives (which is against the Catholic teaching), they view their babies as blessings of God. Although religion shapes how women view pregnancy and motherhood, it does not on the most part influence their sexual activities. This is also reflected in our previous readings across different cultures, religions, and societies, where people used religion to back up their decisions on assisted reproductive technologies and abortion.  

I was sad to read that many women interviewed expressed that they did not have control over their reproductive cycles, or their partners’ use of contraceptives, or had negative (daunting) experiences with healthcare professionals. I remember Dr. Seeman mentioning that one of the best ways to control unplanned/unwanted pregnancies is to promote education, giving women the ability to have control over reproduction. For example, if these women were financially independent enough, they would have more leverage with their partners, and even if they did become pregnant, they would not have to move to the shelter.

As an atheist, I was also intrigued by the fact that many of the interviewed women viewed their relationship with God as a personal matter, that it is more spiritual than religious. This is interesting to me because although my mother and I are atheists, she has always told me that being an atheist does not mean I cannot be spiritual. In fact, she believes that some things in life are destined to happen, and she does not deny the possibility of the existence of a higher power beyond human comprehension. After reading the interviews with these women, I think I can better understand why my mother chooses to be spiritual rather than to have a rigidly defined relationship with certain god/gods.


  1. Hey Maia! Good job! This is a thoughtful post that simultaneously provides context of the readings in the grand scheme of the course, gives a solid summary of the readings, and brings in your personal experiences to enhance our understanding of the topics discussed. In your analysis of the Kleinman article, you brought up your experience with the Chinese government and censorship. As I was trying to relate your experience with any I may have faced, I thought of my experience within my family. While the censorship is unofficial, and not even remotely as intense as you or your mother may experience, I experience censorship within my own family. I do not believe in God, and my opinions about religion greatly differ from those my family holds. If I ever express opinions too radical, they threaten to punish me or separate me from the family in some way. It begs the question – how can ethnographers get an accurate analysis if censorship goes to even the closest kinship structures?

    In Dr. Seeman’s article, he discusses how god and religion impacts religious women’s experiences of pregnancy and conceptions of motherhood. I think I also have a similar experience as you when reading. I found the separation between personal, spiritual matters and religious ones intriguing. I’ve defined myself as an atheist since 6th grade, but all the while I (kind of) believe in astrology. And recently I’ve been thinking about life more spiritually and connecting with Judaism in that way as opposed to religiously. I think specifically in Judaism, there is a lot of room to do just that because it is so multifaceted. I am half ethnically Jewish, 100% culturally Jewish, and not at all religiously Jewish. How does an ethnographer analyze religion, morals, and experiences when the observance of a religion can be so convoluted?


  2. Hello Maia! I thought your analysis was well-said, and I appreciated the questions that you posed throughout, as well as being able to hear your personal stories and opinions on the matters. Similar to Willie, your personal connections led me to reflect on my own experience and prior knowledge. In regards, to Kleinman’s article, I connect to the phenomenon that he summarizes from Veena Das, on ethical dilemmas being manipulated and imposed onto moral issues to cover up local issues. I was immediately reminded of a film covering the experience of Dr. Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies here at Emory, as she was sued by a Holocaust denier for libel. One focus of the film is on the tension between providing testimonies of Holocaust survivors versus solely utilizing legal arguments in the case. To me, this tension is very similar to the quandries of bioethics that Kleinman discusses and makes me wonder how ethnography could contribute to fields beyond bioethics.
    While reading Dr. Seeman’s paper, I had a realization that my outlook on pregnancy is the epitome of this interaction between pregnancy as a blessing and as planned and intentional. This stems directly from my father’s job as a high-risk obstetrician, in which he helps pregnant women who have pre-existing conditions or a history of miscarriage that may make their pregnancy more challenging. On one hand, due to the extremes of these women’s conditions, I can understand that any successful pregnancy can be seen as a “blessing.” At the same time, diagnostic tests, scanning, and my father’s insight into the combination of these analyses aim to provide the mothers with information to plan on the outcomes of the pregnancy. Often, this may entail decisions like those that we watched in the Burden of Knowledge film. Thus, pregnancy is, at the same time, a decision that can be intended and largely controlled. Ultimately, while my family is secular, and I have never seen pregnancy as a blessing, I feel as though an unintended blessing and the existence of planning and intention can exist in tandem. To me, pregnancy (as a contingency) can be seen as an opportunity (rather than a determined outcome), and this opportunity could be the blessing. At the same time, planning, information, and intentionality can be used to help families better understand their blessing.

  3. The Chinese proverb you include does a really good job describing how ethnographers should position themselves in anthropological research. Keeping somewhat of a distance between the lives of the scholar and subjects of interest is important to best interpret their practices and behaviors with limited biases. Since it’s pretty much impossible to completely eliminate personal thoughts and reflections based on life experiences, acknowledging this in bioethics research is a good way to embrace context dependent moral experiences. The fact that people are social animals is really important to understanding this analysis as well because researchers can get wrapped up wg\hen taking on cultural aspects to familiarize themselves with the surrounding environment. The intentions of research can also definitely influence the findings that result so it’s important to be clear about them outright. In the case of reproductive technology, if an ethnographer immerses themself in a community to prove a point or clearly support a claim the information gathered from conversations they initiate will be subconsciously influenced by preconceived notions. In addition, people tend to respond with what they think people of a certain type of authority or status want to hear rather than candidly sharing what may actually be true to their lived experiences and values. The same concept can apply when considering the mothers of focus in the unintended pregnancy article, which is why I appreciate the unfiltered sharing of stories to get a sense of their realities through their own lens rather than one placed onto them by researchers set out to promote a certain narrative. This could account for some of the initial shock and sadness that I initially felt towards their situation which thankfully was improved with the implementation of their positive mindset to view the pregnancy as a blessing.

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