By the time she was 14 years old, Colleen Farrell ’16 knew she wanted to be a doctor. But when she shared her career aspirations with a teacher, she was met with what would become a common question over time: How will you be able to practice medicine and raise children?
The question haunted Farrell, not only because it seemed discriminatory—no one asked this of aspiring male doctors—but also because she wasn’t sure she could answer it. That uncertainty hasn’t prevented Farrell from pursuing her dream of practicing medicine; instead, it spurred her to delve more deeply into the ethical considerations that face women who enter the profession.
Farrell, a former research assistant at The Hastings Center in New York State, was editor of the September 2013 issue of Virtual Mentor, the American Medical Association’s online ethics journal. With a theme of motherhood and medicine, the issue opened with Farrell’s editorial, “Motherhood and Medical Ethics: Looking beyond Conception and Pregnancy.”
“Within bioethics, when we talk about gender issues, it’s usually related to reproduction. The issues surrounding conception, abortion, and new technologies to treat infertility have captured the public interest. They get talked about a lot,” Farrell says. “I wanted to think of motherhood and reproduction in ways that extended beyond biology.”
Bioethics and medical ethics encompass the study of moral principles and implications related to the clinical care of others, but, says Farrell, “we don’t research the ethics of motherhood, and that is the ultimate caring relationship.” With each article she selected, Farrell attempted to shed light on what she calls “the day-to-day ethical dilemma that, in a way, we’re all participating in”—that is, the issues surrounding motherhood.
Those issues range from the exclusion of pregnant women from drug trials, to the mothering experiences of the incarcerated, to the effect of global migration on mothering and caregiving.
“Social structures like incarceration or migration shape people’s experiences of motherhood,” says Farrell. “Physicians are encountering women in these vulnerable situations—in the role of both mother and patient—and I think it’s important to be mindful of that.”