I wrote last week about a disturbing article in The New York Times Magazine that related stories of women who chose to "reduce" their pregnancies from twins to singletons. From my vantage point, the article raises two sets of ethical questions–one surrounding the ethics of abortion and so-called pregnancy reduction (not exactly an abortion since the fetus is killed in utero and then remains in the womb until delivery), the other surrounding IVF and other reproductive technology. Although some of the questions are linked to one another–what does it mean to be responsible agents for our bodies? To what degree can and should we assert control over our bodies? To what degree does any interference with conception, gestation, and delivery–whether that be using birth control, fertility medicine, IVF, or abortion–commodify life?
Traditional ethics uses a juridical process, in which experts consider the moral questions raised by a situation, explore those questions using established ethical principles, and render a judgment based on which principles are most applicable. Narrative ethics is less cut-and-dried. It allows room for amateurs to weigh and discuss the complexities of a particular person's story, acknowledging that such factors as the person's intentions and past experience are relevant.
She explains the limitations and possibilities inherent in acknowledging the stories of individuals when considering ethical questions:
But there's a problem with focusing exclusively on our and others' stories: Humans are prone to self-absorption, self-pity, and a tunnel vision that puts our own pain, problems, and desire for happiness front and center. We are all too capable of justifying poor decisions and bending or obscuring the truth to suit our needs. In short, we are all sinful and overly caught up in the self.
So practicing narrative ethics does not mean that anything goes, that people have unlimited freedom to pursue whatever they want in isolation from moral, cultural, and emotional consequences. Rather, practicing narrative ethics means that we give weight to the myriad and significant circumstances that lead people to make ethically fraught decisions, and allow people's stories to influence our dialogue and our language.
It's tempting to disregard stories in favor of judgments. Ethics are easier that way, without the messy reality of real human beings, in all our brokenness and all our goodness. Ellen's words remind me of our need to rely upon the guidance of the Lord, who responded to particular people and particular stories, in making ethical judgments. It's not that there is no place for ethical judgments, but that judgments should always be offered in the context of spiritual fruit: of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control.