Body Ecology and Commodification in The Handmaid’s Tale
Rebecca Bratten Weiss

Editor’s Note: This is one of several blog entries on Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. For the first in the series, go here.

The Handmaid’s Tale was one of many texts which, when I finally read it, turned out to be very different from what right-wing religious educators had led me to expect. Extrapolating from muttering (male) disapproval, I had conjured vague and terrible antics of “sexual revolution,” women tearing themselves away from virtuous domesticity, turning on Christianity, probably taking the Pill and having abortions and, worst of all, enjoying sex too much.

Obviously, nothing at all like Atwood’s novel, in which the protagonist is subjected to depersonalizing, utilitarian sex as a kind of stand-in for her master’s infertile wife, her sexuality commodified not for pleasure but for reproduction, in a politically mandated surrogate motherhood which entails the utter erasure of the woman as anything other than a reproductive function. Her past relationships are wiped out, her real family torn apart.

She is the victim of a sexual assault that is no less heinous for being legal, and for the purposes of reproduction instead of sexual frisson. Sex is presented in this story as potentially frightening, and not in an orgiastic context, but in a relation of utility.

(We women always knew that it can be frightening, in this context).

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Pregnancy and Childbirth for Mothers with Disabilities

Every once in awhile a venue surprises you: Teen Vogue has been doing good critical reporting on social justice issues and American politics, and Cosmopolitan–long the home of beauty tips and how to please your man–has just published an article called “The Insulting Childbirth Experiences Mothers with Disabilities Endure.”

Author Kathryn Joyce interviewed a number of women with disabilities who are also mothers, but the focus of her article is the story of Nikki Villavicencio and her partner, Darrell Paulsen. Nikki uses her feet to perform tasks instead of her arms, since her arm joints are immobilized by arthrogryposis; Darrell has cerebral palsy. Both often use wheelchairs as mobility assistance.  After childbirth, their newborn infant Alexandria was transferred to a children’s hospital across town due to worrisome symptoms:

The staff at the children’s hospital complained that their wheelchairs took up too much space in the exam room, and a social worker told them the staff were only there to care for Alley, not her parents. The nurses also made it clear they would not help Nikki breastfeed. (Nikki remembers thinking, We didn’t want you to, but OK.) They even suggested Darrell wait in a separate room, down the hall.

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Not a desire which anyone may gratify: what impact might artificial wombs have on abortion?
Alison Reiheld

Amidst the flurry of news in the last week over artificial wombs–a primitive artificial placental sack, or “biobag”, sustained sheep fetuses for four weeks–most of the coverage focused on the value in caring for premature infants.

A hairless sheep fetus in a large plastic bag is depicted. Fluids and a pump mimicking placental blood flow are shown attached.

For a higher-resolution version of this image, Google the Scientific American article, “Brave New Wool.”

I was reminded of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous argument on abortion. In that argument, Thomson argues that it is wrong to compel a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will, especially if there is a threat to her life, by drawing on an analogy to a very ill violinist to whom you have been attached as life support against your will. The violinist example helps Thomson to discuss the limits of what women can be forced to do in order to render aid to others, rather than focusing on whether the fetus is a person; after all, uncontroversially (one hopes!) violinists are persons. Thomson says, “you may detach yourself even if it costs him his life.”  But Thomson goes on to say “you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means.”  Or in other words, “the desire for the child’s death is not one which anybody may gratify, should it turn out to be possible to detach the child alive.” It is this last bit that was very much in my mind, along with the much touted benefits to premature infants, as I have reflected upon this technology.

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What Now?
Rory Kraft

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bioethicist Rory Kraft brings us this handy explanation of the complicated legislative processes in the U.S. Congress, and offers some recommendations for ethicists’ involvement in American healthcare reform going forward. For Kraft’s previous IJFAB Blog reflections on health care reform see this and this.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) 217 – 213. The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate.  For anyone who managed to miss the vote, no Democrats voted for the bill; Twenty Republicans voted against it (there are currently four vacant House seats; Republican Dan Newhouse of Washington state did not vote).

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A Plea to US Citizens: Contact your Senators about the current attempt to Repeal the Affordable Care Act without an adequate replacement
Rory Kraft

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this afternoon, the U.S. House (one of the chambers of America’s bicameral legislature) voted 217-213 to approve a bill to repeal major parts of the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. The measure that cleared the House will then have to clear the Senate, which may have to make changes to the bill to get it to pass. If it passes, the altered bill will have to go back to the House for approval, a process known as ‘reconciliation’. The House voted on the measure–an adapted version of their March attempt–without the complete analysis of its impact from the Congressional Budget Office, an analysis they generally look for on this kind of bill. The White House defended voting without the CBO report, saying that the bill contains too many unknowns for the office to successfully predict its effects. Philosopher and medical ethicist Rory Kraft brings us this brief consideration of the measure that passed the House today. For his cautionary notes about prior attempts, see his March 31 blog, “The ABCs of the AHCA: A is for abortion, B is for backward, C is for costly.”

I do try to strike a certain balance on political posts. While I don’t try to “hide” my positions, I also generally do not find discussions of politics on social media to be time effective. Thus, I tend to share news stories with interesting angles more than stating my own position or calling for action.

Today I will make an exception and ask folks to take political action.

Please call your Senators and ask them to vote against the AHCA and in particular this alteration of the ACA.   You can contact your Senator by looking them up on this site.

If you fall on the liberal side of political issues, it probably doesn’t take a lot to convince you that bill will be detrimental to the nation’s health.

If you fall on the conservative side, you may be interested to know that under the Upton amendment $8 billion dollars will be funneled into trying to prop up the individual markets, while still causing a loss of coverage for some 24 million people. This is not fiscally conservative. This is not compassionate conservatism. AND, members of Congress and their staff will be exempt from the changes that AHCA would bring to both Medicaid coverage and to the nature of employer-based coverage, including pre-existing conditions.

There is no question that there are aspects of ACA (“Obamacare”) that should be revisited and fixed. The AHCA does nothing to fix those problems.

Call your Congressman/woman and urge them to vote against this bill and bring forward a real approach to repair ACA.

Appendix from the Editor: You can learn more about this through the following links, all dated May 4, 2017.


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Labor Without Respite: Tennis, pregnancy, and other ‘unexpected feats’

This image shows a woman with pale skin and long blonde hair. A bookshelf is behind her as though the picture is taken in a professional office. She stares seriously at the photographer.

Verina Wild

A black and white photo of a woman with short wavy dark hair. She is wearing earings shaped like leaves and a pair of rectangular wire framed glasses. Her mouth is slightly open in a very small smile as though she is listening and about to speak.

Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra


Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra (Dr. sc. med., Research Associate, Liminal Spaces Project; Teaching Fellow, School of Law; Executive committee member, Mason Institute; University of Edinburgh Law School, UK)

Verina Wild (Dr. med., Philosophy Department, Ludwig-Maximilians- University Munich, Germany) 

This image shows the head and upper torso of tennis star Serena Williams. She is wearing tennis clothes in black, a black head band, a delicate silver necklace and a white watch. She covers her mouth with her hand, as if in astonishment.

Social media feeds are currently lighting up with news from Serena Williams and her first pregnancy. Articles are also picking up on the detail that given that the world class athlete is 20 weeks pregnant, she must have won the Australian Open in her first trimester. If you accept the fact that bodies of super stars, especially in relation to pregnancy, are a matter of public debate – so far, so good, for some happy news amidst otherwise rather unbearable headlines.

A particular piece in The Guardian however, gave us pause. The Guardian asked its female readers what ‘unexpected feat’ they ‘pulled off’ while pregnant.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: a roundup of media sources and related prior IJFAB Blog entries

Editor’s Note: See “Body Ecology and Commodification in The Handmaid’s Tale” by Rebecca Bratten Weiss, and more to come.

Over the next few weeks, IJFAB Blog will have several original blog entries on The Handmaid’s Tale, both the book and the new Hulu series that just began releasing episodes online Wednesday April 26, 2017. Until those are in and posted, this Editor provides a list of thought-provoking reflections on the book and the series from the general media:

IJFAB blog has also had previous blog entries that address the general issue of control over women’s reproduction and the social importance of reproduction:

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Sleep as a matter of justice

Over at the LA Times, Benjamin Reiss has a fine consideration of the ethical importance of sleep differences in his article, “African Americans don’t sleep as well as whites, an inequality stretching back to slavery.”

Poor sleep has negative health effects, and is more likely to result from having to live in certain circumstances: during times of slavery there were tight and crowded sleeping quarters while sometimes chained and women were particularly prone to sexual assault, and now there are unpredictable work shifts for lower-income workers who must live in more crowded circumstances in order to live more cheaply.  Vulnerabilities of race and class are compounded. I won’t summarize large portions of the article here, but I strongly recommend that you follow the link above to this thoughtful, beautifully-written piece that examines many parts of American history with respect to sleep and slaver including the role of medicine and medicalization in reinforcing differences in treatment of blacks and whites that affect sleep.

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Like and unlike: Late abortion in the case of wanted pregnancies, and miscarriage
Alison Reiheld

A recent article by Natalia Megas in The Guardian profiles three women who chose late abortions and who had very much wanted to be pregnant.  It is a moving exploration of the seriousness of abortion as a moral issue, and an important set of premises in why late abortion must remain legal and available. It also raises questions for me about whether the experience of late abortions of Yellow square bearing the words "A wanted pregnancy as much as a dreaded pregnancy can play differently than all one's previous imaginings. --Susie Orbach"wanted pregnancies shares elements of experiences of miscarriage, not just termination of unwanted pregnancies. But let’s start with real narratives from Megas’s article.

Early in the article, Dr. Jennifer Conti explains why women often must make such a decision:

Abortions that occur at this stage in pregnancy are often the result of tragic diagnoses and are exactly the scenarios wherein patients need their doctors, and not obstructive politicians… Asking a woman to carry a fatally flawed pregnancy to term is, at the very least, heartbreaking. I’ve often heard women say that they chose to end such pregnancies because of unselfish reasons: they couldn’t bear the thought of putting their fetus through even more pain or suffering.

One pregnant woman’s* fetus** had multiple congenital deformities which might cause the fetus to die during labor, caused complete or partial absence of the connection between the brain’s Continue reading

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Climate Change is a Medical Ethics Issue, and this graph shows why it’s real

Medical ethicists and public health specialists have argued for some time that climate change is  a health issue and a medical ethics issue. The four links in the previous sentences are a nice starting point if you want to bone up on some aspects of why this is the case.

This brings us to an April 19th, 2017, article from Climate Central that went viral on Twitter the past few days.  This article included a graph that shows, for each month since the year 1880, which months were hotter than usual, or colder than usual.  Since “than usual” is a shifting target as more and more data is recorded, continual trends of “warmer than usual” show increasing warming, not just steady temperatures.

And that is precisely what the graph shows: there hasn’t been a cooler-than-usual month in 628 months. Each row on the graph represents one year, divided into 12 horizontal blocks with one for each month.  If the month is warmer than usual, it is a shade of red: the darker, the warmer.  If the month is cooler than usual, it is a shade of blue: the darker, the cooler.

From 1880, when the chart begins, through 1915 or so, we see a mix of warmer and cooler months. Between 1915 and 1940 or so, we see a definite visual trend toward warmer months with decreasing numbers of cooler months.  And from 1940 on, there are very few cooler months. As we move from 1940 toward the present, the graph grows decidedly darker read.

The world is warming.  We may not be able to prevent it from warming further. But we must be asking ourselves what we can do to mitigate this damage, and to help those made vulnerable by it.

Several IJFAB blogs and peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles have addressed this in the past, as have some works published elsewhere but authored by members of the FAB community. You may find them useful for digging into this issue:


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Our own post-Easter resurrection: this Blog is fully operational

Many thanks to PJ Welsh and Ezgi Sertler for the technical work behind the scenes restoring IJFAB Blog to full functionality!

We are up and running.  Got a possible blog topic?  Contact the editor!

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Thank you for your patience

Hello, dear readers. As you may have noticed, IJFAB Blog has been down for a week and a half. While the blog is back up, we are working to fix access to our archive of blogs. You may notice that links to our excellent store of prior entries are currently non-functional.

Thank you for your patience as we work through these technical problems.

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