Narrative Ethics as “Educational Storytelling”

I mentioned in Tuesday’s post that in a recent radio interview, the host referred to what I do in No Easy Choice as “educational storytelling.” I and several readers (thanks Alison and Rachel!) think that’s an excellent term for what I’m doing. By sharing my own story and contemplating the stories of others, I hope to educate readers, pastors, clinicians, prospective parents, and others, so we can have a more informed, robust, helpful conversation around the cultural and ethical implications of reproductive technology.

“Educational storytelling” is related to the discipline of narrative ethics. I have also used this term to explain what I do, with one big caveat: “Narrative ethics” refers to a particular approach to ethical discourse that was developed by academic bioethicists—people with lots of education, a depth of knowledge, and letters after their name that I do not have. When I write about narrative ethics, I am trying to make sense of the term, for myself and my readers, as a non-scholar with a passionate interest in reproductive bioethics. If I get it wrong—if I write something that is not quite accurate—I hope that any of those folk with letters after their name who know more than I do will 1) be forgiving of a layperson who is trying earnestly to discuss ethical dilemmas in a way that regular folk can understand, and 2) correct my errors.

The most helpful resource I’ve found for understanding a narrative approach to bioethics is Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics (Rita Charon and Martha Montello, eds. New York: Routledge, 2002). Advocates for a narrative approach argue that it transforms ethics from an isolated juridical process, in which experts weigh the merits of various arguments and make pronouncements based on ethical theory, to a communal, consensus-building process in which amateurs grapple with the stories on both sides of a bioethical debate, accepting their emotional complexity and constructing “new ways of living well together.” (Nelson, Hilde Undemann. “Context: Backward, Sideways, and Forward.” In Stories Matter, p. 46).

What does this mean for our conversations, here and elsewhere, concerning the ethics of reproductive technology?

First, here’s what it does not mean: A narrative approach is not moral relativism. I’ve come upon this misunderstanding a number of times in my recent speaking engagements. I advocate ethical discourse in which people’s stories—their complex, messy, emotional stories—take center stage. But in doing so, I am not saying that we have to accept any and all ethical decisions that people make because they are just doing the best they can within the context of their unique situations. Narrative ethics does not require us to say, “Oh well, whatever people decide is their business given their story. Who are we to judge?”

Reproductive decisions are some of the most intimate and personal decisions human beings can make. I don’t think we can tell people what to do in difficult reproductive circumstances (as I explained in this post about why I wrote a “wishy-washy” book that doesn’t have a strong conclusion about what is right and what is wrong).

Yet I also believe that we, as a culture, need to seriously contemplate putting some limits on what individuals and clinicians are allowed to do with reproductive technology. A couple, in telling their story, might express compelling reasons that they believe they should be able to choose their child’s gender for non-medical reasons, or hire an Indian woman to bear their child. I believe we owe it to such couples to hear their stories. But that doesn’t mean we have a duty to condone every and any reproductive decision they make.

“Educational storytelling” makes sense to me because I see people’s stories as playing a central role in ethical discourse. The role of narrative in ethical discourse is to teach, to inform, to invite people to look beyond cut-and-dried assessments of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad, so we can better understand the difficult, murky, complex, emotional circumstances under which people must make these most intimate and difficult decisions about whether, how, and why to have their beloved children.

I offer my own story and invite others to tell their stories simply so we, as a culture, as churches, as communities of faith, as families, can have more informed and robust conversations around the increasing capabilities of reproductive technology. From those conversations, I hope we can ultimately agree on some broad guidelines concerning how this technology should—and should not—be used.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Alison Hodgson

    “Educational storytelling” is an apt description and invites readers in to a potentially overwhelming or divisive topic. Oliver Sacks is the consummate educational storyteller.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes, Alison, he is. Which is a good reminder to me: Go read more Oliver Sacks!

  • Tim

    Ellen, I understand the value of narrative to help understand and flesh out the ways that ethics can be adapted to our lives, but I am not clear on whether you are saying that narrative is used to decide what the ethical framework itself is in the first place. Are there basic objective ethical standards that the narrative is compared against?

    I ask because I am deeply involved, and have been for many years, in judicial ethics. In fact, I just taught two ethics classes this past weekend at a judicial conference. In our state we have a written canon of ethics which are in the nature of official regulations of judicial conduct. There is room for narrative to understand how to apply those canons, but we do not use narrative to identify the canons themselves. Of course changes in canons can be influenced by narrative, but once a canon is established the narrative merely informs application of that canon.


    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      That’s a great question Tim. I’m going to try to answer it but it’s a question I will probably keep pondering for a while.
      In reproductive ethics particularly, I think we need to allow people’s stories to inform any guidelines (“canons”) we come up with (“we” being any body that decides to make rules concerning our use of repro tech, whether it’s a Christian denomination or a government regulating clinic practice). By listening to people’s stories, we can learn a lot about their motivations for making various decisions, for example. I think that understanding those motivations can help us in crafting meaningful, compassionate guidelines that take into account how and why people do what they do.
      I’ve said before that I really respect Catholic theology when it comes to repro tech and ethics. But where it falls short (in my opinion) is in its failure to allow people’s stories to inform the guidelines/canons/ethical standards they hold up. The Catholic framework is based on assumptions about what motivates couples to use various types of repro tech (e.g., a motivation to control their children as products rather than receive them as gifts, to allow a third party to violate their sacred marital covenant, to limit the procreative purpose of marriage and therefore fail to honor marriage as fully as they should, etc.). But if you listen to people’s stories, I think you begin to see that ascribing such motivations to everyone who uses contraception or artificial insemination or IVF is spectacularly unfair. And you also learn that there are an awful lot of devoted Catholics who simply ignore their church’s teachings because they perceive them as out of touch. (Although of course, there are those who follow the teachings as well.) So that’s an example of where I think narratives could actually influence those who make the rules, and perhaps convince them to revise the rules in a way that would speak more usefully and accurately to people’s real-life situations.
      I’m not saying that just because people find rules hard to follow we should change them. But we should allow ourselves to be informed by people’s stories so we can better understand, perhaps, where we need rules and where we don’t. For example, I think it’s helpful to hear people’s stories to understand why they choose to use PGD to genetically screen embryos. Is there a difference between using PGD because you don’t want to watch your baby die from a serious genetic disease in your family’s genome, and using PGD because your in-laws are pressuring you to produce a male heir? I think so. And I hope that hearing stories from people in both of those situations, and many others, can help us come up with guidelines for repro tech that honor the very intimate nature of reproductive decisions, while also drawing some lines concerning how certain technology should be used.

      That answer feels very babbly. Let me know if it was helpful or not!

      • Tim

        That is excellent, Ellen! Narrative in the context of reproductive ethics seems to be a vehicle for identifying and establishing the guidelines, as opposed to judicial ethics where narrative goes to compliance with the already established guidelines.

        Thanks for getting me thinking about this.


  • Mary Caler

    Ellen, I like this way of understanding narrative ethics as “educational storytelling.” I am so often grateful that I can write as a sociologist and not as an ethicist, because the burden of ethics is overwhelming. However, I do want to raise one point. As Christians, I think we already have the ultimate story — and that is the story of God’s redeeming work through Jesus Christ. I hope that my story, and the tricky situations within, conforms to THAT story, and not the other way around. I think the danger in privileging stories in ethical discourse, for Christians, is to forget that it is our responsibility to live our lives according to the story of Jesus Christ and not to try to make our personal stories primary. For me personally this means remembering that because of Jesus, family is now a matter of baptism and not of biology. In remembering this (which is not always easy), I make the story of Christianity primary and the story of my life secondary. Does that make sense?