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

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