IJFAB and the Future of Feminist Bioethics: Predictions and Disclaimers

September 2, 2016

Written by IJFAB Editor, Jamie Lindemann Nelson.

The World Congress of Bioethics, home to the biennial meeting of IJFAB’s sponsoring organization, the International Network of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, met in Edinburgh this past June. A highlight of the Congress for me was a reception during which the first ten years of the journal were soundly celebrated, highlighted by a terrific talk given by Françoise Baylis, a key player at the start of the journal who eloquently acknowledged the enormous contributions of Founding Editor Mary C. Rawlinson.

Neither Baylis nor Rawlinson were the only women scholars to be specially acknowledged at the World Congress, however. At the opening session, one of the conveners happily invoked Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847), a philosopher with Edinburgh connections who did distinctive work on the nature of causation, and the associated idea of the relation of the past to the future. In a city whose civic statuary features intellectuals as well as kings and generals, I didn’t find any commemorating Shepherd, although there was a large statue of one of her chief targets, a thinker whose work also concerned causation and temporal relations, and who apparently sported a golden toe.

If the past is any guide (and as even Shepherd’s foil Hume might admit, what else have we?), prediction is as precarious as it is unavoidable, and the more specific, the more likely to reveal the predictor’s hubris rather than the contours of what is to come. Still, I’m going to take heart from a dictum of Lady Mary, who memorably asserted that “the future is involved with the past” (Essay on Cause and Effect, 1824) and try to sketch a few ways in which the future of feminist bioethics may run, shaped in part by what happens in IJFAB’s pages, rooted in its involvement with the past.

Let’s start safely: feminist bioethicists are likely to take progressively fuller advantage of various intersectional resources and strategies available to them. The reflections of postcolonial thinkers, of disabilities scholars and activists, of race and queer theorists, of those who study the impact of class, inter alia, and the experiences of those whose lives are represented in these bodies of thought, will become more familiar parts of feminist bioethics. Further, the field is likely to continue the kind of thematic expansion that Jackie Leach Scully touched on in last month’s post—beyond reproduction, beyond the clinic and the precincts of policy, beyond even what is generally understood by notions such as the “social determinants of health.”

But what form might that expansion take, and would a field so expanded still count as “bioethics”?

Here, we leave what’s safe and move to what might at best be called intriguing. A possibility that intrigues me is that our community of scholar-activists will be hard at work at deepening our understanding of concepts basic to bioethics.

Consider, for example, the notion of the “human.” Feminist bioethicists have usefully thought about the human and related ideas in connection with the core areas of reproduction and research for decades; a way forward might lie in scrutinizing how that notion figures in newer discussions that lie further afield. For example, in the buzz surrounding the so-called “anthropocene”—a proposed periodization of the present that sees human impacts on the world as this epoch’s geographically distinctive feature—there might be both the opportunity and the need to gain a better hold on the varieties of ways human beings of distinguishable social categories have affected geological and ecological systems. So doing might well sharpen our sense of the anthropocene’s soundness as a category and of its practical challenges to well-being, and for how medical and other institutions ought best to respond to them.

Or perhaps we’ll see new investigations of how interacting structures of social power, such as class, ethnicity, ability range, and gender, should condition understandings of the “post”- or the “trans”-human and their implications for other conceptual distinctions—for instance, between therapy and “enhancement,” with their consequences for how medical power ought be directed.

And then there’s the concept of “gender” itself, which, to speak gently, tends to be quite differently understood by many feminist scholars than it often is by nonfeminists. The time seems ripe for expanded critical scrutiny of this core concept, given the prominence of how state legislatures in the United States, for example, are becoming sites where contests about how to understand gender are fought out, and certain understandings are invested with state power, the better to restrict the uptake of conceptions that challenge traditional perspectives and practices.

Continued attention to such fundamental ideas could refine feminist bioethical thought as it circles back to reconsider questions of health’s connection to patterns of inequality, to health policies, to clinical quandaries generally, and to reproductive and other issues that directly involve women’s health and women’s bodies, while that reconsideration itself continues to improve understanding of the concepts it uses. A similarly benign feedback loop might characterize those normative notions so familiar that could well be patented by feminist thinkers—the ethics of care, for example, or relational understandings of autonomy and knowledge. I expect these ideas will be further developed, more searching applied, more rigorously challenged, and more effectively encouraged to give rise to ever more adequate successors.

Of course, a large part of what’s so attractive about being part of this journal’s editorial quartet is the confident expectation that my anticipations about feminist bioethics will be exceeded (if not exploded) in fascinating ways. So, I’ll close with some remarks about IJFAB’s future, something my colleagues and I have a more direct role in shaping. I hope that those at hand for the next decanal retrospective will note with satisfaction that our authorship has become more consistent with our international scope, that our readership has grown larger and more inclusive, and that, topically, we have become even more bold. I even anticipate that each volume of the journal will contain more issues, better accommodating the growing number of bioethicists who write from feminist perspectives.

Yet, my chief hope for those who gather at the 2026 World Congress to celebrate the appearance of IJFAB’s twentieth volume is that they can point not only to the continued refinement of the intrinsic strengths of feminist bioethics, but also to the substantial and growing impact of its ideas on bioethics generally, and on practice and policy in health and social care throughout the world. If so, perhaps Edinburgh’s future adornments will include statues not only of a few women, but perhaps even a feminist bioethicist or two.

– Jamie Lindemann Nelson

* Editor’s Note: Please send expressions of interest to editorialoffice@ijfab.org.

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