Susan Sherwin, PhD

Susan Sherwin, PhD

Professor Emerita of Philosophy and Gender & Women’s Studies,
Dalhousie University

Susan Sherwin, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Philosophy and Gender and Women’s Studies at Dalhousie University. Professor Sherwin’s areas of expertise include feminist health ethics and philosophy, women in health research, abortion, and reproductive technologies.

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On Day 1 of the interview, Prof. Sherwin discusses growing up in a small, Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, Canada, and the Jewish values instilled in her. Prof. Sherwin describes her education: completing her undergraduate education at York University in both philosophy and math, earning a PhD in philosophy at Stanford University, and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Case Western Reserve University. She reflects on the sexism she experienced in high school and other academic environments. While at Stanford, Prof. Sherwin was part of the 1970s feminist consciousness-raising movement. She describes her pivot at Stanford from philosophy of math to feminist philosophy. She explains that her dissertation, Moral Foundations of Feminism, is believed to be the first dissertation in the United States on feminist ethics.

Prof. Sherwin describes her participation in the Moral Problems in Medicine Project as a postdoctoral fellow at Case Western in the early 1970s, emphasizing the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of bioethics compared to philosophy. Prof. Sherwin describes Ruth Macklin as a mentor, friend, and collaborator. She discusses the terms “bioethics” and “medical ethics,” and her preference for “health ethics.”

Prof. Sherwin describes working in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as a postdoc, initially feeling unprepared and like an intruder but learning how to offer a theoretical or philosophical frame for patients navigating difficult medical decisions. She narrates her realization that feminist philosophy and medical ethics were more related than she initially thought. Prof. Sherwin describes her career at Dalhousie University, beginning as a professor of philosophy in 1974 and concluding with her recent retirement, including a description of her longtime collaboration with other women faculty at Dalhousie. She discusses the problems with underrepresentation of women in health research, especially pregnant people.

On Day 2, Prof. Sherwin discusses abortion historically and in light of the recent US Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, offering comparative abortion history in the United States and Canada. She explores relational theory, using philosopher Annette Baier’s coined phrase “second persons” to consider the role of social construction in personal development. She offers an overview of her first book, No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics and Health Care. Prof. Sherwin maintains that the feminist lens expands the scope of inquiry. She distinguishes between agency (the ability to make a choice) and autonomy (having choices available that actually serve your needs and well-being). Prof. Sherwin describes serving on the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies which advised on reproductive technology legislation in Canada. She reflects on how bioethics has mostly explored rights instead of responsibility, describing her advocacy for a public health ethics that encourages relational solidarity, especially during a pandemic.

Prof. Sherwin discusses the role of metaphor in a health context, especially militaristic metaphors such as “battling” a disease. She shares her advocacy for the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs. Prof. Sherwin reflects on her retirement and self-care. Toward the end of the interview, she emphasizes the importance of environmental ethics, stating that global climate change should be a major focus for bioethicists.

This interview may be of interest to those seeking to learn more about: bioethics and the history of the field; philosophy and early feminist philosophy; feminist health ethics; abortion and comparative abortion history in the US and Canada; relational theory and bioethics; agency and autonomy; Jewish upbringing; Case Western Reserve University and bioethics; and bioethics in Canada.

You can find full audio, transcript, and other materials in the Moral Histories Archive 

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