Feminist Bioethics and Empirical Research

Stacy M. Carter, Vikki Entwistle

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Feminist bioethics is committed to grounding ethical argumentation in good evidence about the everyday world and people’s experiences within it. It thus requires some meaningful connection to the empirical. This chapter focuses explicitly on what it means to do feminist empirical bioethics, outlining the perspectives, practices and communities of practice entailed. The perspectives underpinning feminist empirical bioethics can be contrasted ontologically and epistemologically with those of traditional analytic philosophical bioethics. These perspectives shape practices towards particular kinds of questions, and foster a thoughtful approach to the relationship between the normative and the descriptive, a commitment to methodological standards across disciplines, and sustained, grounded and inclusive attention to the empirical. Future challenges for the community of feminist empirical bioethicists include expanding the methods and methodologies used, attending more closely to intersectional and global disadvantage, and connecting research to action to increase justice and support social change.

This chapter examines empirical research as key to furthering feminist bioethical understanding. It attends particularly to the somewhat neglected question of what it means to do feminist empirical bioethics.
Feminist bioethicists are, as Jackie Leach Scully (2016) has explained, inevitably normative in their orientation: as feminists, they have a prior commitment to reducing injustice; as bioethicists, they aim to reach prescriptive or proscriptive conclusions. Feminist bioethicists also tend to share an empirical attitude, typically believing that doing ethics adequately requires taking the empirical seriously, and reflecting as closely as possible what goes on in the world – for women and men, for those more and less structurally advantaged, and in everyday lives, not just rare high stakes situations. Feminist bioethicists ground their normative analyses in empirical description or explanation, either by generating empirical evidence themselves, or by attending to and using empirical evidence in particular ways. Their coupling of the empirical with the normative derives from the ontological and epistemological commitments of feminist theory, and is arguably constitutive of feminist bioethics.
Within bioethics, however, feminist empirical research is marginalized in several ways. Mainstream bioethics tends to include feminist bioethics only tokenistically (Scully et al. 2010); some in the mainstream Anglo-American philosophical tradition view empirical bioethics skeptically, partly because of how they problematize the relationship between the descriptive and the normative (McMillan 2016). Feminist empirical bioethicists need to address this double marginalization by both engaging opposing arguments and producing work of demonstrable value. We aim to support both strategies here. The first section outlines what we mean by feminist empirical bioethics, the second provides illustrative case studies, and the final section briefly considers the future of feminist empirical bioethics, including directions for the further development of practices.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Feminist Bioethics
EditorsWendy A. Rogers, Jackie Leach Scully, Stacy M. Carter, Vikki A. Entwistle, Catherine Mills
Place of PublicationOxford, UK
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781003016885
ISBN (Print)9780367860998, 9781032290393
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jul 2022

Bibliographical note

The funder for this chapter is the University of Aberdeen.


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