Feminist Ethics

September 11, 2011

It cannot be said that there is one feminist perspective on issues related to health and health care. In fact, the perspective known as “feminist ethics” actually encompasses greatly divergent views and multiple schools of thought, including liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, psychoanalytic feminism, and socialist feminism. In addition, a distinction has been drawn between feminist and feminine ethics. Whereas feminist ethics is said to argue against patriarchal dominations, for equal rights, and a just and fair distribution of scarce resources, feminine ethics advocates on behalf of an ethics of care that encompasses nurturance, care, compassion, and networks of communications. The ethic of care rejects the cognitive emphasis of other approaches to ethical analysis and emphasizes the moral role of emotions. The detachment inherent in the cognitive approaches is criticized precisely because it fails to recognize the attachment inherent in relationships.

Feminist/feminine ethics accomplishes four tasks: (a) the provision of an emphasis on the importance of women and their interests; (b) the provision of a focus on issues especially affecting women; (c) the reexamination of fundamental assumptions; and (d) the incorporation of feminist insights from other fields into the field of ethics. Feminist medical ethics has been assigned the responsibility of developing conceptual models that will restructure the power associated with healing, to allow individuals to have the maximum degree of control possible over their own health.


Feminist ethics is often concerned with the content of the discussion, such as reproductive technologies and the rationing of medical care. For instance, while many ethicists approach the issue of abortion by weighing the relative importance of preserving life or protecting autonomy, feminist ethicists approach the issue of abortion by examining the difference that it will make in women’s lives if they are free to decide to continue or not to continue each pregnancy. In general, feminist approaches to medical care have argued that increased reproductive technology generally means increased medical control.

Feminist ethicists have long argued that the medical research agenda in the United States is determined with reference to those who are white, upper and middle class, and male. The consequences of the resulting narrow perspective are troublesome: (a) hypotheses are developed and research conducted without reference to sex or gender, although the frequency of various diseases differs by sex; (b) some diseases which affect both sexes, such as coronary heart disease, are defined as male diseases, resulting in little research being conducted on women with those diseases; (c) research affecting primarily women has received a low funding priority; and (d) suggestions for research based on personal experiences of women have been ignored.

The exclusion of women from research results from a number of mechanisms, including eligibility criteria that specifically exclude women from participation in specific studies and reliance on gender-neutral eligibility that serve to exclude because they fail to take into account women’s responsibility for the home and family. The exclusion of women has been defended with reference to the need for homogeneity among research participants to facilitate the research and statistical analysis, the potential liability that could result should a woman and/or her offspring be injured during the course of the research, and a belief that it is morally wrong to include women in studies because they may be, or may become, pregnant. The one notable exception has been the inclusion of women in contraceptive research.

Genetic research has been of particular concern for some feminist ethicists. Because women are already deemed to be responsible for reproduction and family life in general, it is feared that women’s reproductive options will become fewer as physicians insist, based on newly acquired knowledge, that genetic testing constitutes the standard of care. Some theorists visualize a devaluation of motherhood, as women are denied the role of the mother of their children as a result of new technologies. One writer analogized the participation of women in such ventures to the trade of a prostitute who sells her womb, ovaries, and egg, instead of her vagina, rectum, and mouth. Because of these concerns, at least one ethicist has asserted that any ethical guidelines for preembryo research must involve women in their formation and in the formation of national policies relating to preembryo research and that the impact of proposed national policies on women as a group should be considered in their assessment.

SEE ALSO: Femininity, Feminism, Lesbian ethics, Patients’ rights

Suggested Reading

  • Corea, G., et al. (Eds.). (1985). Man-made women: How new reproductive technologies affect women (pp. 38—51). London: Hutchinson.
  • Holmes, H. B., & Purdy, L. M. (Eds.). (1992). Feminist perspectives in medical ethics (pp. 8-13). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Larrabee, M. J. (Ed.). (1993). An ethic of care: Feminist and interdisciplinary perspectives. New York: Routledge.
  • Mastroianni, A., Faden, R., & Federman, D. (Eds.). (1994). Ethical and legal issues of including women in clinical studies (Vol. 2, pp. 11-17). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Tong, R. (1993). Feminine and feminist ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Tong, R. (1997). Feminist approaches to bioethics: Theoretical reflections and practical applications. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Wolf, S. M. (Ed.). (1996). Feminism and bioethics: Beyond reproduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

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