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Genes, Women, and Equality. By By Mary Mahowald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

In Genes, Women, and Equality, Mary Mahowald considers a variety of genetic technologies and interventions from a feminist perspective. As she states, her goal is "to delineate specific implications for women of advances in genetics" and "to examine the extent to which these implications are consistent with the principle of justice in general and gender justice in particular" (6). The book addresses issues that have received much recent attention by bioethicists, but Mahowald considers them in a way that highlights the often overlooked gender [End Page 214] implications. Though reproductive technologies have been given detailed treatment by feminist theorists, the associated issues in genetic technologies have received comparatively little feminist attention. This gap may be attributable to the way in which genetics has been conceived of as a gender-neutral scientific pursuit. Such a neutral conception is less supportable in reproductive technologies, since they so centrally and obviously involve women's bodies. Yet as Mahowald clearly indicates, many of the "gender neutral" genetic interventions and technologies directly and unequally impact and affect women's bodies and women's lives, thus making the academic discipline of genetics a gendered pursuit.

Mahowald uses feminist standpoint theory to address the gender gaps and silences in traditional treatments of genetics. In so doing, her goal is to "identify gender-specific differences that might be overlooked or underestimated if a gender-neutral stance were maintained" (6). In cases where the impact of genetic technology is more burdensome to women, posits Mahowald, there is a moral argument in favor of privileging the standpoint of women with regard to genetic policies. Given their nondominant status, women's perspectives are often marginalized or displaced by the dominant, masculinist point of view.

To enrich her approach, Mahowald assumes an egalitarian version of standpoint theory, one that treats all persons equally irrespective of class, race, gender, ability status, and sexual orientation (7). For, as she indicates, in some cases of genetic technologies other countervailing concerns may outweigh gender concerns. In her chapter "Cystic Fibrosis and Misattributed Paternity," for example, Mahowald argues that a woman's standpoint should be given prima facie priority where testing for cystic fibrosis (CF) indicates that a woman's husband is not the genetic father of her child. She offers a scenario in which a couple has a child who died from CF, and in which the woman is currently pregnant with their second child. The death of their first child suggests that their second child is likely to be affected by CF, given that both parents are likely to be CF carriers. But the test indicates that the husband could not be the biological father of the deceased child, meaning that there is a very slim chance their current fetus is affected by CF. Since such a revelation may negatively affect the woman by threatening her marital relationship (and perhaps her personal safety should her husband respond violently to this news), there is good reason for a genetic counselor to disclose paternity solely to the woman in order to protect her interests and safety. If, however, the male partner shows extreme anxiousness concerning the possibility of being a CF carrier, or if he has siblings who have an interest in knowing that they are not at risk of having a child with CF, the woman's privacy interests, and her standpoint, may not outweigh the interests of the others involved. One must weigh the burdens to make the appropriate moral judgment; as Mahowald claims, "if disclosure to Dave is likely to be more burdensome to Marilyn than to him, the information should not be disclosed to [End Page 215] him, and if the disclosure is likely to be more burdensome to Dave, the information should be disclosed to him" (173). Thus, while gender is Mahowald's central concern in her book, her egalitarian feminist standpoint allows for a broad consideration of what counts as a nondominant standpoint, and which parties are most likely to bear the burdens of the genetic technologies.

Yet there are problems with Mahowald's approach. First is the problem of determining which...

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