Pro-Life Feminism: A Catholic feminist philosopher considers the consequences of punishing women for seeking abortions

In 1986, an article was published in Commonweal encapsulating a view that to some people seems deeply incongruous.  The author of this article was Sidney Callahan and the article was entitled “A Case for Pro-Life Feminism.” The views Callahan laid out remain as profound calls to look to the circumstances within which choices to terminate pregnancy occur, and to target them rather than only the procedure itself. Callahan argued in part that the availability of abortion as a solution to these problems allows society to continually fail to address the reasons that it is hard for women to have and raise children.  Whether or not you agree that abortion is immoral, Callahan’s ethical redirect can be a valuable tool to add to one’s mental repertoire.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss, a farmer and philosopher and instructor at Franciscan University in Steubenville, has done just this. She responds to the kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s discussion of punishing women for seeking abortion, and to a similar set of issues raised by a new law in Poland, by redirecting our attention away from abortion toward the circumstances in which choices to abort take place. It is worth a thought.  You can find it over at Patheos.

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Anne Drapkin Lyerly, Carleigh Krubiner, and Ruth Faden pen a passionate call to look broadly at pregnant women’s health, through the lens of the Zika virus outbreak

Over at the Baltimore Sun, Anne Drapkin Lyerly, Carleigh Krubiner, and Ruth Faden have penned an excellent op-ed on the need for further research on pregnant women.  They write:

Pregnant women are at the crux of Zika’s most devastating consequences. Their needs must be uppermost in Zika prevention plans. While this will not be easy, the knee-jerk response that research with pregnant women is too complex to contemplate is not acceptable.

Current recommendations for women to delay or avoid pregnancy are unfair and unrealistic. In many areas hit hardest by Zika, women have limited access to contraception; there are, moreover, high rates of unplanned pregnancy worldwide. Preventing pregnancy may be the right course for some women, and preventing Zika in women before they get pregnant is critical. But these responses cannot be the whole answer.

You may remember that 2 of these authors–Lyerly and Faden–published a call for responsible inclusion of pregnant women in research in the second issue of our own International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, back in 2008, along with Margaret Olivia Little. Lyerly, Little, and other bioethicists also co-authored a piece in the Hastings Center Report on the way that risk is conceptualized in the treatment of pregnant women.  Both bear on this issue and you may wish to check them out as well.

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Thought-provoking Guardian article on narratives (including patient testimony) and literature on medicine

Over at The Guardian, Andrew Solomon has a worthy article called “Literature about medicine may be all that can save us: A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art.” Solomon notes that,

Language is integral to medicine. It is hard to cure a condition you cannot describe, and few treatments for those conditions go without names of their own. Even veterinarians, trained to diagnose animals who cannot put their complaints into words, begin by labelling the illness and proceed by specifying the treatment. The emerging field of narrative medicine proposes that patients can be treated correctly only when they can tell the story of their illness, often in the context of a more extensive autobiography. A doctor usually begins by getting the patient to describe their pain, and often arrives at diagnosis as much through that interaction as through anything he can observe. Illness is temporal, and language helps to chart its course, even when x-rays, MRIs, CAT scans and other images can represent its current state. A picture is not always worth a thousand words; sometimes, it is the words that tag the problem. You tell the doctor how you felt yesterday and how you feel today; the doctor tells you how you should feel tomorrow. That interaction is part of the cure; it is why a physician’s bedside manner can have such an enormous impact on his efficacy. We are embodied, but our minds order the brokenness around us by imposing vocabulary on it. In fact, there is some evidence that people who can speak more fluently receive better medical care; patients deprived of language are often subject to abuse.

patient phys comm

This image shows a man in a blue dress shirt and striped blue tie, wearing a white coat. His mouth has a bandaid over it. He is standing next to a woman in a pink sweater and dress shirt. Her mouth also has a bandaid over it. Both are white. The man is raising one eyebrow much higher than the other as though confused or inquiring. The woman is raising both eyebrows. This is an add from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The text reads “Talk much with your doctor? Communication between doctors and patients can be powerful medicine. But too often, both parties come up short. Patients should come to appointments prepared with questions written down in advance and a list of all current medications and allergies. Doctors can do more, too, starting with listening better and using language patients don’t need a medical dictionary to understand…” IMAGE SOURCE:

Privileging narrative this way both centers (re-centers?) patient experience and testimony even in a world replete with clinical signs and markers–imaging, bloodwork, hands-on movement of limbs, blood pressure, heartbeat, skin discoloration, etc.–and highlights the bare fact that patients who cannot communicate in ways that doctors find effective may have worse outcomes.

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Dwarfism, Chemical Limb Lengthening, and Informed Consent

According to a recent article in the popular press, a California based biotech firm, BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, has completed Phase 2 of a clinical trial for a drug that would partially suppress the expression of the Achondroplasia gene in a child’s long bones. The results of this phase of the study show children with Achondroplasia are able to gain about 2 centimeters of height per year by undergoing frequent injections of the drug and complications of the intervention are described as “mild to moderate.”

Considering the context of Little People of America’s 60 year history and 7,000 members, it should not be terribly surprising that this attempt to develop a so-called treatment for the most common form of dwarfism has stirred up a backlash that is nearly as passionate as Deaf culture’s initial response to the cochlear implant. However, these complex identity politics of the dwarfism community probably won’t produce arguments that are persuasive to most average-stature parents. After all, Dr. Hank Fuchs, who serves as BioMarin’s Chief Medical Officer, has explained the supposed motivations of the study just this past week by stating: “By addressing the root cause of Achondroplasia with vosoritide treatment and normalizing annualized growth velocity in children with Achondroplasia, we ultimately hope to improve the medical complications of disproportionate bone growth.”

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Feminist Swag: Sellouts or sell out?

Have you ever wanted to tell the world you are a feminist without speaking? Have you ever wanted a t-shirt that shows what intersectional feminism can by by depicting Rosie the riveter as women of color, women wearing headscarves, tall women, short women, skinny women, fat women, women rocking wheelchairs?  Do you want a shirt for your pet?  Or perhaps some socks so you can flash some feminism when you bare your ankles? A onesie for a kid you know? Unisex t-shirts? Women’s t-shirts? Up to size 3XL?

IJFAB Blog does not endorse this product or line of products. We are not trying to get you to buy their stuff.

prettyBut we live in a world where where JC Penney recently sold a t-shirt in the girls’ section that says “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”  There was a bit of a firestorm about it at the time, and Penney’s ultimately pulled it from the shelves. But at no point in the product design or ordering process did anyone apparently put the kibosh on it internally. Such attitudes are still accepted in this actual world.


we can do itAnd in this actual world, we do indeed need more t-shirts like the one at left, which is marketed by Feminist Apparel as “Intersectional Rosie.” Every woman is dressed like Rosie the Riveter.  From left to right, you see a black woman rocking a natural, a very short white person with long blonde hair, an Asian woman with hair in a pony tail, a tall muscular woman who may be white, a white woman with white-blue hair in a wheelchair, a brown-skinned woman wearing a headscarf, and a fat white woman with a bouffant hairdo.

On the other hand, this IJFAB Blog editor notes that there is always a fine line to be walked when we are selling feminism, or buying products that we buy because of our ideology. This is sometimes called “femvertising.” Nonetheless, a world in which there are messages walking around on people’s bodies that counteract dominant narratives about gender and about women and about ability and about race… surely that world is better than one in which there are not?  What do you think?

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Bathrooms, Binaries, and Bioethics: Jamie Nelson takes on the American debate over gender and bathroom access
Alison Reiheld

Jamie Lindemann Nelson, PhD. Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

Jamie Lindemann Nelson, PhD. Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

With a blogpost over at Michigan State’s Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, feminist bioethicist Jamie Lindemann Nelson has dipped her toes into the acid bath that is the American debate over gender and bathroom access.  Nelson has long drawn attention to bioethics’ shameful silence on trans* issues. In “Bathrooms, Binaries, and Bioethics,” she takes on the medical and moral confusions implicated in, and at the root of, the USA’s current debate over bathroom usage.

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The Brave Response to Anti-Abortion Legislation
Katherine McHugh

In the wake of the anti-abortion legislation we’ve seen from Utah, Indiana, Florida, Texas, and multiple other states, people across the country are forced once again to examine their beliefs around the legality and morality of the issue, especially in light of the upcoming elections. This is the country’s 43rd year after Roe v. Wade, and we have seen the strictest abortion restrictions ever be proposed, passed, and signed into law.

As a native of Indiana and an OB/GYN, I am particularly outraged by my state’s recent efforts, which prohibit abortion for genetic abnormality. I described the bill’s impact on my practice and patients in an opinion essay for the Washington Post. I also spoke at a Rally for Women’s Rights, representing my view of the effect on the medical profession and doctor-patient relationship.

My husband and I discussed the possible impact on our family, our livelihood, our safety. We prepared for an onslaught of insults and threats, criticisms of both my work and my character, and fearing for my future. Together, we decided it was worth the risk.

The response has been incredible and not at all what I expected.

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Zika, the film


Courtesy Debora Diniz (University of Brasilia).

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On The Costs of Simplistic Thinking: Reproductive Health Clinics Aren’t Just For Abortions

The purpose of this post is not to argue against anti-abortion protesters. It is to narrowly and briefly explore what the harms done by principled, committed anti-abortion protesters when they assume that Reproductive Health Clinics, and procedures they perform, are primarily for the purpose of abortion.

Planned Parenthood - defund

This image shows a small subset of the roughly 500 anti-abortion protesters which gathered on August 22, 2015 near the Richmond, VA Planned Parenthood to advocate for the total defunding of the organization. The crowd appears to be almost entirely Caucasian, dressed for hot weather with hats and sunglasses. One man is holding a wooden cross. Many are holding signs. One reads “2,290 babies died here in 2014” while another says “women need love not abortion.” Many read “DEFUND PLANNED PARENTHOOD.” One says “DEFUND EVIL.” IMAGE CREDIT: P. Kevin Morely/Richmond Times-Dispatch

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“New York Just Created a Revolutionary New Family-Leave Policy”

The paid leave program will cover full-time and part-time employees. There will be no exemptions for small businesses. And to take advantage of the program, you only have to have been employed by the company for six months (advocates had been negotiating for four weeks, but six months is still half the time required by FMLA). The program will be funded on an insurance model, in which roughly a dollar a week will be deducted from employee paychecks; there is no employer contribution.


What’s more, women and men will be entitled to paid leave. For both straight and same-sex two-parent households, this benefit could have a big impact on family finances and health, according to Dina Bakst, a lawyer and founder of A Better Balance, a legal advocacy group for working families. “It’s possible that parents could stagger their leaves,” she said, “which is crucial because infant care is so unaffordable and inaccessible. It would make a real difference to be able to hold off on putting a baby in day care until they are four or five or six months old, as opposed to four weeks old.”

Read more at New York Magazine. Some (admittedly quick) fact-checking indicates this is not an April Fools’ piece.

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Women: Not Faring So Well on Wikipedia

From The New Yorker, “A Feminist Edit-a-Thon Seeks to Reshape Wikipedia“:

In spite of the site’s ostensibly egalitarian, accessible format, more than ninety per cent of its editors are male, according to a study conducted in 2011 by the Wikimedia Foundation. Less than five per cent of its super-users—people with more than five hundred edits to their names—are women. Many causes have been suggested for this, from Wikipedia’s code-heavy editing interface to its contentious and sometimes hostile user culture. What results, however, is an indisputable failure to consider certain topics that are of particular interest to women. (Note that the entry for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a fictional team of martial-artist reptiles, is twice the length of the entry for Toni Morrison, a real-life Nobel Prize-winning author.)

I note in particular that Wikipedia’s “Bioethics” entry barely mentions feminism, and there is no entry for “Feminist Bioethics.” I leave it to you to assess the entries on “Feminist Philosophy” and “Feminist Ethics.”

Also still very relevant: “Wikipedia’s Hostility to Women” at The Atlantic 

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Gendered Medicalization of Sexual Desire?
A Medical Sociologist Reflects on How “Women’s Viagra” Isn’t Like Viagra at All

The medical humanities have long drawn attention to the way that social power structures and value judgments affect diagnoses and the very disease categories on which those diagnoses are based. Peter Conrad famously discussed medicalization—the process by which a human condition comes to be seen as a medical one—as a form of social control, a facet of medical sociology he revisited in 2008. Indeed, as I have argued, medicalization can not only reinforce but also disrupt social categories.  It should come as no surprise that medications designed to treat sexual dysfunction in men, and now in women, are based on diagnostic categories which are heavily subject to construction by social norms and stereotypes.

Sociologist Alyson Spurgas addresses just this issue over at the SIUE Women’s Studies blog in “We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby? Pink Pills, Blue Pills, and False Equivalences in the Medical Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction.” In this provocative and long-form scholarly blog entry, Dr. Spurgas draws out curiously gendered distinctions between the DSM-V’s diagnostic criteria for men’s and women’s sexual dysfunction.  Spurgas argues that these contribute to the differences between established treatments for men’s sexual  dysfunction and brand new treatments for women’s sexual dysfunction, the former focusing on malfunctions in the body while the latter address the woman’s state of mind and receptivity to her partner’s advances, with problematic implications for women who have experienced sexual trauma or are in unsatisfactory relationships.

I strongly recommend clicking through to read the article as a whole.  Dr. Spurgas closes with a recommendation:

 In this vein, we ought to remember that sexism and misogyny are still prevalent in a variety of insidious forms—within and outside of clinical medicine and scientific laboratories, and with or without prescription drugs. The medical and scientific climate around sexuality and proposed and prescribed treatments are rather effects of a widespread and willful ignorance of women’s pleasure, and thus they represent a larger social lacuna. This is why it seems so imperative to shift the debate from the drugs themselves to the larger medical, scientific, social, cultural, and political milieux in which gender differences are configured and disseminated—configurations that have real consequences for how people experience their own bodies, other people’s bodies, and their sex lives. If taking a drug will make women feel the desire that they desire to have, and that is satisfying and pleasurable to them, then, by all means, we should have it! But let’s not stuff too many pills down our throats before seriously considering what we want, why we want it, and what we could potentially want for our futures (sexual and otherwise). There are many trajectories to that place of pleasure—if “sexual” pleasure is what we choose to pursue.

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