Introduction: Gender and Feminism in Bioethics

FEMINISM & BIOETHICS: BEYOND REPRODUCTION, pp. 3-43, Susan M. Wolf, ed., Oxford University Press, 1996

43 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2011

See all articles by Susan M. Wolf

Susan M. Wolf

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: 1996


In this initial chapter from the breakthrough volume, Feminism and Bioethics: Beyond Reproduction, the book’s editor seeks to solve the puzzle of why bioethics has largely ignored gender and feminism, long after the rest of the humanities and law have found such work to be important. The answer, she argues, lies in the deep structure of bioethics - in its early embrace of a liberal individualism largely inattentive to social context; in its emphasis on deduction from ethical principles rather than induction from concrete cases; in its tendency to view ethical problems either dyadically as problems between individuals, or nationally as problems for the entire society, but rarely at an intermediate level attentive to the moral significance of groups; and in the failure of bioethics to be sufficiently self-critical by examining whom the field serves and how. The chapter explores the range of feminist theory with important implications for bioethics and then explicates feminist possibilities for reconstructing the work of bioethics, including by expanding the subjects of concern, shifting the field’s epistemology, and changing its analytic methods. Serious engagement with gender and feminist work will deeply alter the theory, practice, and impact of bioethics. This volume’s twelve chapters aim to catalyze that reconstruction.

Among the reviews are the following: “Drawing on work from top feminist bioethicists, philosophers, and law professors, Susan Wolf’s anthology Feminism and Bioethics reinforces the vibrancy of feminist theoretical contributions to bioethical thinking. The twelve articles, accompanied by Wolf’s extensive introduction, suggest how feminism’s insights and critiques refine our thinking on a wide range of bioethical issues…. Wolf’s book confirms that feminist approaches are no longer marginal or to be dismissed by ‘mainstream’ bioethics: one fails to engage these contributions at his her own peril as a legitimate scholar, teacher, or practitioner in this field.” - Leslie Bender, 25 JOURNAL OF LAW, MEDICINE & ETHICS 58 (1997).

“Wolf offers an insightful account of why bioethics may have been reluctant to assume for itself a critical project and why until recently it has failed to engage feminist work. Bioethics’ relative isolation within the academy, its alliances with health care institutions and political processes, its embrace of the ideals and concepts of liberalism, and its belief in the importance of abstract rules and principles all coalesced to erect a wall between bioethics and feminism where there should have been obvious points of affinity…. Taking readers beyond reproduction, not to the brink of revolution, but toward reconstruction in bioethics, Wolf’s volume proceeds by illuminating how the field, its categories, and its arguments were constructed in the first place, within necessarily gendered institutions and discourses. From its first pages the volume proves that in personal experience and intellectual inquiry, gender matters.” - Lisa S. Parker, 19 THEORETICAL MEDICINE AND BIOETHICS 411(1998).

Keywords: Feminism, feminist theory, bioethics, bioethics method, feminist bioethics, principlism, liberal individualism, casuistry, standpoint theory, ethics of care, epistemology

Suggested Citation

Wolf, Susan M., Introduction: Gender and Feminism in Bioethics (1996). FEMINISM & BIOETHICS: BEYOND REPRODUCTION, pp. 3-43, Susan M. Wolf, ed., Oxford University Press, 1996, Available at SSRN:

Susan M. Wolf (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-625-3406 (Phone)
612-624-9143 (Fax)


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