More than Individual Concerns by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsWell, the fall semester of the school year has begun. I’m teaching undergraduate classes in Christian Ethics and Bioethics this fall. I’ve designed my classes so that they are much more discussion-based than they have been in previous semesters and as a result, I’m noticing the things that challenge and confuse my students fairly early. I have readings from feminist, womanist, and mujerista thinkers in these courses, and unsurprisingly, some of my students don’t know what to do with the arguments feminists make about how we arrive at moral decisions and live them out. I hope that as we work through the essays together, my students and I learn from each other.

I assigned an essay called “Theology’s Role in Public Bioethics” by Lisa Sowle Cahill that was included in the Handbook of Bioethics and Religion edited by David E. Guinn (2006). Cahill, a feminist thinker, asserts that theology can be a conversation partner in public debate about bioethics and also an advocate for just, compassionate, and inclusive health care practices. Citing the work of another feminist, Maura Ryan, Cahill argues that ethical questions about reproductive technologies should be examined not only as individual dilemmas but as issues that exist within a social justice context. In the conclusion of the essay, she states, ”Specifically, one of [theology’s] most important and distinctive contributions to public discourse is a critique of the ways in which modern biomedicine and biotechnology have become luxury items marketed to economically privileged classes, while the world’s poor majority lacks basic health needs.” (55).

I suppose because I’ve been reading feminist thought, theology, and social ethics for years, some of the claims that my students see as radical and new are commonplace and go unquestioned by me. I expected some of my students to disagree with Cahill and Ryan’s particular positions about assisted reproduction. But I was surprised by students’ rejection of the idea that debates about reproductive technologies include MORE than individual considerations.

I’ve blogged on this site about reproductive rights before, and let me be clear that I do not think that the church, state, or any institution should have more governance over a person’s body than that person herself. But while respecting individuals’ rights to make health decisions for themselves, I also acknowledge that these “individual” decisions have broader social implications and meanings. This is one reason second-wave feminists have insisted that “the personal is political.”

Feminists routinely relate individual, “personal” acts and beliefs to larger constructs and the too-often asymmetrical power dynamics at work within them. This is why we are disturbed by video of a man who knocks his fiancée out and drags her unconscious body from an elevator and pop stars who gain commercial success by graphic displays and descriptions of sexuality that is objectifying or exploitative. And, in response to one of my students who wondered if feminist interpreters of religious texts go too far, that is why they point to patriarchy in a story that seems to be about devotion (referring to the Book of Ruth).

I’m grateful to my students for prompting me to explain some of these convictions that feminists hold. Certainly feminism is not monolithic. We feminists disagree on many issues including the scope of individual rights, the role of religion in public debate, and the extent of harm (or lack thereof) in media portrayals of female sexuality. But I believe we tend to agree that our personal decisions as well as our societal issues should be addressed with a consciousness that as humans we are beings-in-relation. Our conviction that we are connected and affected by each other lies behind our motivation to make the world a better place for women and girls and others who suffer from patterns of dominance.

What do you think?

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Academy, Body, Christianity, Embodiment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, General, Relationality, Social Justice

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13 replies

  1. I’m not quite sure I understand your students’ problems with the Cahill paper. Are they saying that ONLY individual considerations should go into reproductive choices? In other words, they think that we are all little islands unto ourselves and mothers and children exist in some societal void where their choices do not impact those around them?

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    • I don’t know that they would go so far as to state that we are all little islands unto ourselves, but I think the cultural ideal of rugged individualism pushes them to initially resist the notion that an “abstract” concept like social justice should influence personal decisions. In other words, it’s an assumption that individual rights trump all other concerns. I think feminists affirm individual rights AND commitments to others (like the well-being of disadvantaged women) as factors into decisions.

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  2. Good points Elise. Sometimes I’m so focused on fighting off the hierarchy’s attempts to control all things, especially women, that I forget it’s more than an individual or singular concern.

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    • Yes, this is the tension I have to wrestle with too. Autonomy is vitally important and must be protected, but we must also maintain a sense of our mutual obligations to the social or common good.

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  3. Great post, Elise. I think your students, like most Americans, have accepted the basic premises of the American individualistic ethos. This ethos, inculcated in us very early, assumes that we can pull ourselves up (individually) by our bootstraps, make our own way in the world and succeed by our own efforts, that each of us has to fight for our piece of the American pie, etc. The concept of beings-in-relation is radical to someone who still believes such things. And a very important corrective to the individualistic ethos that for many of your students has not yet been tested in the real world. I’m glad you’re introducing them to this idea. It will help them later on in life and, as far as I’m concerned, make them more ethical people.

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    • Thank you! Your words are very encouraging! The ethos of individualism as you describe it is so pervasive that it too often blinds us to the efforts of others that enable us to “pull ourselves up” or even survive.

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  4. I wonder whether part of the reason some people have trouble with “group” social issues is that our society is based on “individualism.” Even our psychology (which is really male psychology) is based on “separating.” More recently, women’s psychology has focused more on connections and relationships, and how important they are to mental health. But, at least in the USA, it seems that any conversation about “connecting” with each other and taking care of each other – especially on a societal level – smacks of “socialism,” and that word has negative connotations for many in our society.

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  5. It’s such an important skill to be able to look at an issue, especially one that affects us very deeply and personally, from a number of perspectives. So many people are so used to thinking only in the individual terms with which they are familiar and comfortable that it takes a lot of effort to rise above that perspective and see the overall societal structure within which life situations arise and decisions are made. I remember so many “aha” moments when I realized that there was a societal element to a troubling personal situation and that by looking at the broader construct I could see what was really happening and what I needed to do. I believe that pointing out the bigger societal context of so many issues is one of the tasks of feminism and essential to real progress. Congratulations for offering this horizon-broadening opportunity to your students!

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  6. Oh my you have a job on your hands. Have you discussed with your students the idea that “the personal is political”?

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    • I’ve discussed the personal/political in some terms but I clearly need to be more direct and intentional about it. I have ample opportunity as in two classes we move to a discussion of sexual ethics and the other we discuss the formation moral principles.

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  7. Elise I admire your courage. You are right that Americans prize individuality and the myth that we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. This idea has led to many societal problems. Good luck teaching your students about the intersections of race, culture, gender, religion and class. We need more professors like you!

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