Pluralism and Feminist Bioethics

Written by IJFAB Editor, Robyn Bluhm.

This is the third in a series of blog posts from the new editors of IJFAB, and I’ve chosen to write about the wide range of disciplines and methods upon which feminist bioethicists draw. There are two reasons for my choice: first, I think it complements the post of Jackie Leach Scully on the past and future of feminist bioethics and Jamie Lindemann Nelson’s post on the topics and issues she sees as central to feminist bioethics. Second, the topic reflects my own discovery of and continuing approach to bioethics. I discovered feminist bioethics by accident. My research interests initially began with philosophy of medicine and feminist philosophy of science, and, when I began teaching bioethics, feminist bioethics seemed to be obviously the right way to think about bioethical issues. This is partly because, as Jackie pointed out in an encyclopedia entry she wrote with Anne Donchin, one of the defining features of feminist bioethics is its methodological pluralism; they suggest that “feminist bioethics is more likely than mainstream bioethics to draw on empirical data or narrative and phenomenological accounts.”

This pluralism has been reflected in IJFAB. For example, in the most recent open issue, there is a paper that draws on Julia Kristeva’s work to analyze the influence of medical diagnosis on women’s experiences of depression and one that uses content analysis to understand the experiences of American women who choose to participate in commercial gestational surrogacy. Yet another paper argues that feminist pedagogies can be used to build new bioethical practices, while another provides a careful analysis of empirical research on the placental microbiome, as well as the subsequent media coverage of the study. Nor is this IJFAB issue particularly unusual in its breadth and scope: both the open issues and the guest-edited issues focusing on a specific topic have tended to attract contributors who come from a variety of disciplines and use a diverse array of methods.

Why does feminist bioethics invite such pluralism? One answer is suggested by Susan Sherwin’s metaphor of theories as lenses in bioethical inquiry. Sherwin claims that different theories are best used as lenses that bring different aspects of a situation into focus. Recent work in philosophy of science has made it clear that methods can have a similar effect, influencing the details of the questions that researchers ask and what kinds of answers are obtained. Moreover, because ethical issues in health care are so complex, there’s no reason to think that any one method or disciplinary approach will give the “true” or even the “best” answer.

A second possible reason for the pluralism of feminist bioethics is that, simply, it reflects the pluralism of academic feminism. This, of course, raises the question of why feminist scholarship is so diverse. I suspect it’s because the problems it addresses are so pervasive that they are readily apparent to a wide range of scholars (as well as to activists and others). Thus, pluralism is part of the feminist heritage of feminist bioethics. And as feminism has grown to appreciate better the importance of understanding the intersection of gender with race, class, and other aspects of social location, so too has feminist bioethics.

As one of the incoming editors of IJFAB, I am excited to be part of the new editorial team and to help to continue the wonderful work of the journal’s founding editor, Mary C. Rawlinson. I’m also proud to be part of such a vibrant community of feminist scholars. As my coeditors’ posts have made clear, the future is bright for feminist bioethics and for IJFAB.

- Robyn Bluhm