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Feminist bioethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L165-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Bioethics, the study of moral and social issues rising from advances in medical technology, first entered the academy in the United States with the 1969 founding of the Hastings Center, followed the next year by the establishment of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. At the Hastings Center, a private research establishment, projects in bioethics were conducted by tapping philosophers, lawyers, religious scholars, sociologists, and others from universities across the United States and abroad and disseminating the findings in the Hastings Center Report and similar venues; the Kennedy Institute, housed at Georgetown University, comprises philosophers working in bioethics, and publishes its own Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.

Feminist theory, which identifies and criticises the power system of gender that systemically favours the interests of men over women and interacts with other power systems such as race and ableism, also entered the academy in the late 1960s. The two fields of study ran along side by side for over a decade until, in the early 1990s, feminist bioethics was born. This new field drew some of its impetus from the women’s health movement, which encouraged women to take more control over their own bodies, especially in the area of reproduction, and protested the medicalisation and commodification of women’s bodies. It also drew attention to the sexist biases in medical research and practice.

Energised by this activism, feminist bioethics critiqued medical and bioethical theory and practice using sex, gender, and other oppressive mechanisms as categories of analysis aimed at dismantling abusive power systems. Feminist bioethicists pointed out that most of bioethics aimed to serve the interests of powerful white men – physicians, medical lawyers, hospital administrators, and the like – rather than looking at medical practice from the patient’s or family’s point of view. But in addition to such criticisms, feminist bioethicists developed theoretical frameworks for curbing practices of oppression in medicine and provided a venue for the neglected and marginalised others who are seldom represented in bioethics.

The 1990s saw a steady stream of conferences, monographs, anthologies, and essays in learned journals that examine bioethical issues through a feminist lens. Susan Sherwin’s groundbreaking No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics & Health Care appeared in 1992, as did Helen Bequaert Holmes and Laura M. Purdy, eds., Feminist Perspectives in Medical Ethics, and Rebecca Dresser’s Hastings Center Report article, ‘Wanted: Single, White Male for Medical Research’.

The International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, begun in 1993 by Anne Donchin and Helen Bequaert Holmes, two US feminists, had some 300 members worldwide and has sponsored biannual conferences in conjunction with the International Association of Bioethics. The year 1993 also saw the publication of Mary Mahowald’s Women and Children in Health Care: An Unequal Majority, and Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. In 1995 the prestigious Kennedy Institute of Ethics devoted its Advanced Bioethics Course to feminist perspectives on bioethics, and the plenary lectures of that course were then published in a special issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, edited by Margaret Olivia Little. In 1996 the Journal of Clinical Ethics published special sections in each of its four issues on feminism and bioethics. Laura M. Purdy’s Reproducing Persons appeared that year as well, as did the much-cited anthology edited by Susan M. Wolf, Feminism and Bioethics: Beyond Reproduction, and Susan Wendell’s groundbreaking The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. These were followed in 1997 by the publication of Rosemarie Tong’s Feminist Approaches to Bioethics: Theoretical Reflections and Practical Applications, Dorothy Roberts’s influential Killing the Black Body, and Elizabeth Haiken’s Venus Envy, a feminist history of cosmetic surgery. In 1998 the Feminist Health Care Ethics Research Network published The Politics of Women’s Health: Exploring Agency and Autonomy, while the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy devoted an entire issue to the feminist ethic of care. Anne Donchin and Laura M. Purdy’s anthology, Embodying Bioethics: Feminist Advances, appeared in 1999, along with Eva Feder Kittay’s Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. Textbooks and readers in bioethics now routinely include essays written from an explicitly feminist point of view.

Much of that work consisted of feminist critique. It identified the ways in which hierarchical rankings that categorise people by race, sex, disability, age, ethnicity, or subject to genetic disease encourage oppressive discrimination in medical practice, research, and public health. It also critiqued nonfeminist bioethics for its bias in favour of socially powerful doctors, and for the abstract nature of its theory, which produced principles that allow that bioethics to ignore inequities among social groups, in particular, the oppressive burden borne by women in their reproductive and caring roles. A few, such as Mary Mahowald, also applied feminist epistemology to the doctor–patient relationship, showing how, even if physicians’ knowledge is epistemically privileged, patients can know more about how their bodies behave than doctors do.

The work of feminist bioethicists gradually gained traction in bioethics textbooks and at conferences such as the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and the International Association of Bioethics. But they were persistently underrepresented on government panels such as the President’s Commission on Bioethics and other bodies formulating public policy. They, and women in general, also continued to be underrepresented in medical research.

Citing this article:
Lindemann, Hilde. Feminist bioethics, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L165-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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