“Our mandatory breast-feeding fetish:
“Race, class, big business and the new politics of motherhood”

Initiatives like the Big Latch On and The Milk Truck strike me as positive examples of breastfeeding advocacy. Their goal is to protect women’s ability to choose how and where to feed their children. But as I’ve discovered again and again while writing this book, breastfeeding advocacy too often crosses the line into lactivism, including compulsory breastfeeding, breastfeeding as a moral crusade, and breastfeeding as a means of distinguishing good from bad parents. When it does, it limits rather than protects women’s choices. Some lactivists have in fact described “choice” as the language of the enemy. Their campaigns are specifically designed to undermine the idea that women can take into account their own individual circumstances—jobs, child-care options, and so on—when choosing how to feed their babies. At their most extreme, lactivists view breastfeeding as an end in itself—an activity to be defended at all costs, even when it threatens the health and well-being of babies and mothers.

Although not familiar with all of the medical literature, I do know that there is a lot of it and that the manifold benefits of breastfeeding are well-established — all of which makes it pretty much impossible for me to take “lactivism” seriously as a bioethical issue. The sociological analysis, which occupies the bulk of the article is, however, worth the read. (Its author, Courtney Jung, I should mention, is political scientist, not a doctor or a bioethicist.)

Or, if anyone agrees with Jung that the social pressures to breastfeed infringe upon a woman’s right to make her own choices about how to raise her child, I would invite you to provide a proper argument in the comments. Find the article at Salon.com.

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FAB 2016 Call for Papers

FAB 2016 theme and sample topics

The FAB 2016 World Congress theme is “Feminist perspectives and public health: individuals, communities, and the public good.” Sample topics include:

  • Public health: feminist perspectives, definitions, approaches and priorities
  • The ethics of public health approaches in particular contexts (e.g., in the Global South, in undemocratic or totalitarian regimes)
  • Public health: ethics, the law and social justice
  • Feminist thoughts about what moral obligations, if any, are universal
  • Health care priority setting within communities
  • Health as a public good
  • Capability frameworks for thinking about health and disability
  • Capabilities: whose freedoms and whose opportunities?
  • Feminist bioethics: ghetto or global?

While FAB particularly encourages submissions relating to the main themes and sample topics, submissions on any topic in feminist bioethics, and from any relevant disciplinary perspective, are welcome.

The conference organisers are keen to continue the strong FAB tradition of embracing contributions from a wide range of disciplines, including philosophy, social sciences, critical cultural studies (e.g., gender and sexuality studies, disability studies, race studies, etc.), law, public health, and others. We also particularly encourage submissions from early career researchers. Continue reading

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Elizabeth Barnes on
What it’s Like to be a Philosopher

The conversation is wide-ranging, but here is an excellent (I think!) response to a pressing question in the profession:

Why is there so little diversity in philosophy? 

I suspect the answer to this is incredibly complex and multi-dimensional. But at least one factor might be the way we communicate what’s philosophically valuable – from what’s in our cannon to what we cover in our intro class to what we consider ‘core’ to what areas we think a good department just *has* to cover in order to be respectable.

It’s pretty bizarre, when you think about it, that someone who spends their time wondering whether tables are real is considered to be working on a foundational area of philosophy, but someone who wonders whether races are real is doing something we consider a niche, ‘applied’ topic. Likewise, someone who tries to figure out how words like ‘might’ work is doing something core, and someone who tries to figure out how hate speech works is doing something peripheral. I don’t mean to denigrate the person thinking about epistemic modals or tables! People should work on whatever they’re interested in and whatever makes them happy. And I also don’t mean to suggest that esoteric topics are somehow not interesting to people from traditionally underrepresented groups. I think some of the best work being done right now in metaphysics and philosophy of language is being done by women and people of color, for example.  But I do think that the demographic makeup of philosophy has shaped our ideas of what is central, foundational, or ‘core’. It would be bizarre if it hadn’t, really. And I think that part of making philosophy more inclusive is addressing this – and, in particular, allowing people from a wider range of backgrounds to shape what we care about in philosophy, rather than only allowing people from a wider range of backgrounds to succeed in philosophy if they show they can advance the debates we already decided we cared about.

Find the full interview with Elizabeth Barnes on Clifford Sosis‘s new blog “What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?

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“Philosophy saved me from poverty and drugs:
That’s why I teach it to kids”

Largely because of the access I had to philosophy, I was brought safely away from the edge of the abyss that my life teetered above. But is my story just an anomaly? Is it or yet another tale of social mobility that is as unrepresentative as it is redemptive? Research by the Institute of Education has shown that a term of philosophy sessions improved the reading skills of children on free school meals when compared to a control group. If philosophy is made more available to working-class children, then stories like mine won’t seem so unusual.

Read the article by Andy West (The Philosophy Foundation) at The Guardian.

The Foundation’s page is also well worth a visit. The more I learn about the state of the educational system in the United States, the more I come to realize how early it sets students up for failure. Much as some of us may gripe among ourselves about those in our university classes (is writing no longer taught! history between Christ and Columbus–apparently just a blank?), we cannot forget that those who make it to our classroom are very much the luck ones. You may be able to help through direct participation or, of course, donations, what looks to be quite an admirable program with a  mission to help correct these injustices.

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“Just Modeling?: The Modeling Industry, Eating Disorders, and the Law”

The University of Toronto Press blog is currently featuring an interview with Galya Hildesheimer and Hemda Gur-Arie (both at the School of Law at the Peres Academic Center, Rehovot, Israel), co-authors of IJFAB essay from which this post takes its title. Follow the link for the full interview, but here is an excerpt:

Q: Many people will be surprised to see modeling presented as the subject of serious bioethical inquiry. Could you explain why this often trivialized practice requires professional ethical scrutiny?

A: This is exactly what we find so fascinating about bioethics—the ever expanding boundaries of the discipline that reach beyond issues commonly considered as bioethical.

We perceive the bioethical approach to modeling as manifesting a contemporary movement to widen, as largely reflected in IJFAB scholarship, the relatively narrow range of themes commonly subjected to bioethical inquiry. Whereas the role played by the trivialized practice of modeling in Western societies is often underestimated, a bioethical analysis highlights the important issue of major health detriments modeling inflicts on both models and the public at large. That is, the bioethical outlook points to otherwise concealed health implications that require thorough ethical consideration. This presents major challenges to a variety of disciplines that go far beyond medicine and health professions, among them public health, labor law (i.e., work safety and occupational health regulations), and even commercial law. The Israeli Modeling Act is an interesting example of how ethical scrutiny leads to legal intervention in the commercial field of modeling. Our paper illustrates how ethical considerations lead to profound criticism of a wide range of commercial industries that, being under no legally imposed regulation, contribute vastly to eating disorders and to other health detriments of the modern beauty ideal.

In connection with this interview, their essay, which appeared in our special issue 8.2, Just Food, is temporarily available to read without a subscription via Project Muse. (So is Mary C. Rawlinson’s “Food, Health, and Global Justice” — we are still working with Project Muse to correctly label them as such.)

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New Developments in International Surrogacy

Some people call it “reproductive tourism” while others prefer the more neutral “cross-border reproductive healthcare.”  Whatever it is called, surrogacy arrangements for infertile couples are now a big business in India and other countries in Asia–notably, Thailand.  For women who are unable to carry a pregnancy, commercial surrogacy is an option  that enables a couple to have a genetically related child.  The embryo is typically created with the egg of the woman and the sperm of her husband, and transferred to the womb of the surrogate.  Although some states in the U.S. permit commercial surrogacy, it is much cheaper in India or Thailand for the commissioning couples.  The Times of India reports that “According to a 2012 study backed by the United Nations, the estimated turnover of commercial surrogacy business in the country was pegged at more than $400 million a year in, with over 3,000 fertility clinics.”

Feminist groups have been highly critical of commercial surrogacy in India, arguing that it “commodifies” women’s bodies.  Other criticisms contend that the practice exploits poor women, as it is wealthier foreign couples who pay for the services of poor Indian women.  Still others make the opposite argument:  Indian women are paid so much more to serve as surrogates than they could make in any other work that they the money “coerces” them into becoming surrogates. For several years there has been a bill that would regulate the surrogacy industry in India, but the bill has languished in the Indian legislature.  Now the latest development is a proposal by the Supreme Court in India to ban commercial surrogacy.  According to the New York Times, the Department of Health Research of the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare filed an affidavit with the Supreme Court that would restrict surrogacy arrangements to Indian couples and ban foreigners from using surrogates in India.  One apparent trigger for the restriction banning foreign couples was an episode in which an Australian couple went home with a baby girl and left her healthy twin brother behind in India.

India is not the only country in which bans on foreign couples seeking surrogates have been proposed.  According to the Guardian, “Thailand’s parliament has passed legislation banning commercial surrogacy, putting a halt on foreign couples seeking to have children through Thai surrogate mothers.”  Here again, a different Australian couple left their twin boy with the surrogate in Thailand after discovering that the baby had Down syndrome.

These actions by the governments of India and Thailand prompt the question whether prohibition is preferable to regulation.  In both countries, banning foreign couples from paying women to carry their babies will drastically reduce the opportunity for many women to lift themselves out of poverty. Empirical evidence is required to determine whether poor Indian and Thai women who serve as surrogates are better off from their earnings.  If they are able to put food on the table for their families or provide better education for their children, government paternalism that would deny them those opportunities is unjustified.  The arguments that the surrogates are being exploited or that they are coerced by the amount of money they receive are at least questionable, if not seriously flawed.

The episodes in which Australian couples returned home without their unwanted babies are truly shameful.  But it is bad public policy to enact a total prohibition based on a few unfortunate incidents.  The years-long failure of the Indian government to enact regulations that would protect the rights of surrogates could be remedied by appropriate legislation that would ensure enforcement. It is much easier to enact a swift ban than to work out the details required for effective regulation.  The voices of women who have served as surrogates should be heard.  Only by marshaling empirical evidence can it be determined whether the current arrangements are so harmful to the surrogates that total prohibition or a ban on permitting foreign couples is ethically justified.

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A new generation of feminists are calling on popular feminism to adopt the rhetoric of action over identity

As Director of the SIUE Women’s Studies program, I am fortunate to come into contact with young feminists with a wide variety of ideas about what feminism means to them, and the shape it should take to be most effective. In this blog entry from the SIUE Women’s Studies Blog, undergraduate Isabel Gonzales draws on the work of bell hooks to paint a picture of an inclusive feminism that emphasizes doing feminism rather than being a feminist. Many people have likely heard someone say–or even said–“I can’t be sexist because I am a feminist” or “What I said wasn’t racist. I’m a feminist!”

In bioethics, this can be a real problem when physicians, nurses, and policy makers identify as a “good person” and push off any critiques that their actions do not reflect it with an appeal to identity. I encourage you to read Gonzales’s reflection. At a minimum, it provides food for thought.

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Getting Around The Rules To Study the Brain

This might be of interest to bioethicists, physicians, researchers, and so on.  What do you think?  Is this ethical?  Is this one way to push otherwise difficult or controversial research forward?


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The Alarming Prevalence of Toxic Ingredients in Cosmetics and Hygiene Products

 No industry has aligned itself more closely with the breast cancer movement than the cosmetics industry. It’s long flooded the market with pink ribbon products: pink ribbon lipstick, pink ribbon nail polish, pink ribbon perfume.

Yet while they prominently claim to care about women with breast cancer, their pink ribbon products all too often actually increase risk of the disease – and, as if that’s not bad enough, they’re also pushing toxic products on women in active cancer treatment.

Read on at The Guardian. (Thanks to Laura Purdy for sending the link my way!)

Of course, one ought to be questioning the use of toxic ingredients in cosmetics even more broadly. Why are they in any cosmetics? Appropriate regulation could hugely reduce, if not eliminate, toxic substances.

In the meantime, why do women continue to use them? (Projected revenue for 2016: $62 billion!) A question that has been asked many times by feminists, of course. Women’s continuing inequality obviously has considerable bearing on the answer.

Furthermore, this problem is not limited to cosmetics, but extends to hygiene products more generally, for men and women alike. Check your shampoo or hand lotion at EWG’s “Skin Deep” cosmetics database. Chances are high you’ll be alarmed at what you find.

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Sarah Silverman on Her Experiences with Depression

Also, of course, on being a woman in comedy and other matters. Always wonderful to see a cultural celebrity speaking openly about mental health issues, especially those that disproportionally affect women (and, for that matter, academics). Find interview highlights and a link to the full interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

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Guns versus Dildos: The Ultimate Texas Showdown

Here in Texas, everyone is up in arms (pun intended) about the new campus carry law, which, starting August 2016, will allow persons with a concealed handgun permit to carry their concealed handgun onto college campuses and, pending university policies, to bring them into the classroom.

I, like most of my colleagues here in Texas, oppose the law and feel that my right to personal safety in my job is being violated and, further, that the right to bear arms as defined by the U.S. constitution does not extend to the university, or any school, classroom. The campus carry law is a misguided, knee-jerk reaction to the overwhelming, saddening, and frightening amount of campus shootings that have taken place in recent years.

Texas is not the first state to make such a law, however (Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, and Wisconsin allow concealed handguns on college campuses), yet many people here actively oppose the legislation. Most notably, students at the University of Texas-Austin have recently begun a campaign to challenge the law by encouraging students at the university to come with dildos to campus on the first day of the fall semester next year, when the campus carry law will go into effect.


The Facebook event is set for August 24, 2016 under the title “Campus (Dildo) Carry,” with the hashtag #cocksnotglocks. The event creator, Jessica Jin, explains the rationale for the event on the event page: “The State of Texas has decided that it is not at all obnoxious to allow deadly concealed weapons in classrooms, however it DOES have strict rules about free sexual expression, to protect your innocence. You would receive a citation for taking a DILDO to class before you would get in trouble for taking a gun to class. Heaven forbid the penis.” Continue reading

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Somehow This Feels Remarkably Apropos…

Happy Friday!

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