July 21, 2008

Staking a Claim: Women, Theology, & Bioethics

Dorothy Sayers, theologian, lecturer, author of detective fiction, and friend to C.S. Lewis, responded to the question of what is a “woman’s point of view” as it pertains to literature and finance. She said “…don’t be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle.”[1] The point to be taken from this exchange is that for those things which are a matter of basic fact, there is only one perspective and that is a human perspective. As it pertains to other matters, Sayers continues,

“…I prefer to think that women are human and differ in opinion like other human beings…you can not ask for ‘the woman’s point of view,’ but only for the woman’s special knowledge…’”[2]

Women today have differing points of view in matters of bioethics, yet the same experience of womanhood, though always with some exceptions. But the most dominate expression of this experience, this “special knowledge,” is not from the voice of evangelical women who, as theologians, can provide meaning and communicate hope, but from secular feminism. This is not to suggest that there are no evangelical women engaging in theological dialogue, but as it pertains to being an influential, prophetic voice in bioethics—in the academy, church, and in popular culture—few women address bioethical matters in this way. A cross-centered evangelical bioethic offered through the theological voice and experience of women can serve as an apologetic for a Christian worldview, helping to put to rest the suspicion and charges of female oppression by evangelicalism and evangelical bioethics that are often made by secular feminism, charges that view human autonomy as the highest value. In society and within the community of evangelical bioethics, woman as theologian offers a unique and fresh perspective to all levels of discussion, from academic scholarship and education to more public activist roles.

Secular Feminist Bioethics
Women’s issues, especially those related to women’s health and bioethics including abortion, pregnancy, contraception, and reproductive technologies have by default, come under the domain of secular feminism in popular culture. For years, since the second wave of feminism leading to Roe v. Wade until now, these women’s issues have been addressed primarily by secular feminist voices, and by specifically feminist bioethics. Academic journals like The International Journal to Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, blogs like the Women’s Bioethics Project, and popular organizations like NOW and the Feminist Majority exist to develop the next generation in the academy and in popular culture. The website of Women’s Bioethics Project states

Women’s health concerns have always been at the core of the Women’s Bioethics Project’s work. Moving beyond narrow conceptions of women’s health, we will be focusing on issues such as aging, women’s participation in medical research, the impact of traditional care giving roles on women’s lives, and end-of-life decision making. We have a series of initiatives planned to help bring these issues to the attention of the media, increase women’s involvement, and impact public policy.

It is clear that the focus women’s issues is expanding beyond what has been traditionally conceived of as important to women—contraception, abortion rights, infertility, reproductive technologies, and so on. And while feminist bioethics are expanding, with the persuasive power of mythical neutrality, evangelical women as theological bioethicists have yet to speak prominently in the theological academy, church, and in culture to these issues. With all of these voices speaking to women of all ages, and with women eagerly listening, it has to be asked, where are the theological voices of evangelical women? In there book, Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Theological Academy, Pohl and Creegan ask similarly, “where are the good women?”[3] The gender discussions within evangelical circles are no doubt a contributing factor to the scarcity of evangelical women as theological bioethicists. But whether complementarian or egalitarian as it relates to women’s roles in the church and family, there is ample support in Scripture for women to be a strong voice in the academy, church and culture without concern for compromising conservative views of gender roles.

Staking a Claim Among Women
One might wonder why theologically-informed female voices need to be available as prominent voices in the church, academy and culture. There are no new metaphysical truths to be uncovered, we have a grasp on what the bible teaches on human dignity and the great commandment to love our neighbor, so why does the gender of the messenger have any relevance? Aren’t the prominent, sound voices of evangelical men in bioethics enough? I am especially thankful for all those I have and continue to learn from in the field, but I also see the gap of influence of women on other women – and on men, who, as a member of the human race, experiences life a bit differently. The way to answer the question about the importance of women’s voices is to see the women who have sought women’s voices due to their “special knowledge,” their experience. The female evangelical theologian in bioethics can offer a fresh and unique perspective, not because she offers new knowledge on the basis of her womanhood, but because she identifies with the same joys and pains of half of the people in our culture. The previously mentioned organizations have a great deal of influence in our culture not because they force their message on women or anyone else, but because women want to hear from them. Women are listening to these women, and these women come from all parts of society including the church. Even further, the fragmentation of faith and reason has led to further splits in our thinking, and quite noticeably between health and reproduction and our spirituality. Concerns about women’s health in the evangelical church often receives limited preemptive attention because this fragmentation has taught people to believe that certain matters are to be addressed by their doctors and certain matters are to be addressed by their pastors.

Crucial to the future of evangelical bioethics is the proactive willingness to develop theologically informed women bioethicists for work in the seminary, in the church, and in culture. Women continue to dominate church membership—60% as recently reported by Barna—and continue to enter into higher education in increasing numbers. Evangelical women who desire theological training find themselves in strange territory, one stating “I guess I’ll be too liberal for most evangelical institutions and too conservative for most mainline schools.”[4]

The Scriptures contain numerous stories of women’s experiences as it relates to matters of reproduction and even end of life scenarios. There are obviously profound theological implications of these stories—the barrenness of Hannah and Sarah, the end-of-life grief of Mary and Martha, sisters to Lazarus—as well, there are practical lessons to be communicated to women in our world today. God cares about the details and he is not uninvolved in our lives. For evangelical women in theology today, the task is to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ by taking ownership of these bioethical issues that have thus far been dominated by secular feminism.

The scope of this discussion is focused on the value of theologically-informed women’s voices for the sake of women, though it does not preclude the importance of her influence on men. But in terms of God’s calling on the ministry to women, I believe we can find direction for this work in Titus 2.

Typically viewed as instruction for how older women are to mentor younger women in keeping the home, I believe we can with all integrity see the broader implications of this passage in our contemporary culture. Titus 2:3-5 states:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.

Bioethical issues never operate in a vacuum, and a decision—whether related to reproductive technologies or end of life questions—will always involve members of one’s own family. For the woman as theologian and bioethicist, with her special knowledge as woman, daughter, and perhaps as wife and mother, has the opportunity to teach “what is good” to women in the academy, church, and culture. But we must be willing to take our place in culture and no longer be willing for women’s issues to be owned by the voice of secular feminism. Through this, we may see the new trends develop in society at large in how we view human nature, life, the unborn, and the disabled. Ultimately, then, women as theological bioethicists have one more way to advance God’s kingdom to his glory. WFC

[1] Are Women Human? Dorothy Sayers Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (November 15, 2005) p. 41

[2] Ibid, p. 43

[3] Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism And the Theological Academy. InterVarsity Press, June 2006. Page 31

[4] Ibid, 41.

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