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Environmental Ethics

Volume 43, Issue 2, Summer 2021

Katharine Wolfe
Pages 143-163

Nourishing Bonds
The Ethics and Ecology of Nursing

The care ethics tradition has long argued for the merits of understanding the self as relational. Inspired by this tradition, but also by ecofeminist philosophies that insist on the need to consider our wider ecological and interspecies connections, this paper focuses on the relational elements of breast/chestfeeding (most frequently referred to as ‘nursing’ for gender-neutrality) and their ethical implications. I show nursing to be an act that not only 1) connects us to one another through bonds of nourishment and care but also 2) reconnects us to our animal selves and enlivens connections to non-human animals. Moreover, I argue that nursing 3) exposes our entwinement in a web of ecological relationships through which the toxic harm we have wrought on our environment returns to us. To draw out the ethical implications of these connections, I introduce the concept of ‘relational vulnerabilities.’ Relational vulnerabilities are forged through our connections to others, be they bonds of dependence and need, historical harm and ongoing violence, love and joy, or all at once. I contend that all relational vulnerabilities call for ethical attention, yet, when it comes to nursing, these vulnerabilities are often neglected or, worse, made the targets of heinous abuse.

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