Featured Scholar: Ji-Young Lee

This entry is part of a series of mini interviews with philosophers in association with our upcoming in-person event on Reproductive Technologies and Family Ties.

Today we share a mini-interview with Ji-Young Lee, who is organising the workshop ‘Reproductive Technologies and Family Ties‘.

Tell us a little about yourself Ji-Young, please.

I’m a Korean-born, Austria-raised, UK-educated Postdoctoral researcher in Philosophy currently residing in Denmark. I have been abroad for most of my life. My family and friends are dotted around all over the globe. Perhaps not surprisingly, I love to travel.

My Philosophy PhD explored various theories of individual autonomy. When I came across the VELUX project on ’The Future of Family Relationships,’ taking place here at the University of Copenhagen, I was inspired to think about autonomy in relation to assisted reproductive technologies like IVF, egg-freezing, surrogacy. Do more opportunities and options for child-making mean greater autonomy for everybody? The answer seems to be a straightforward yes, at least if we limit our meaning to expansion of reproductive choice. However, I’m also interested in the possibility that expanding reproductive choice could perpetuate social oppression and undermine people’s autonomy in other ways. I was rather fascinated to read recently, for example, that many women with AUFI (absolute uterine factor infertility) wish specifically to get a uterus transplantation (UTx) in light of a preference to gestate their own foetus. This preference prevails over and above other methods of having children, like gestational surrogacy and adoption, despite the particular risks and harms that accompany UTx. Are there values and norms both implicit and explicit in a society about what aspiring mothers should want, which complicates the process of informed and empowered decision-making in this era of reproductive technologies? Investigating these issues have led to my joining the VELUX project and moving to Denmark, home to the world’s largest sperm bank and to some of the highest proportions of children born via assisted reproductive technologies in Europe!

How is life as a Postdoc in a new country compared to life as a PhD?

Overall, it is going very well despite everything that has happened over the past year or two. I moved to Copenhagen for my Postdoc from the UK in the middle of a strict lockdown in Spring 2020, after almost 10 years in the UK. It was stressful and difficult, to say the least, to leave behind the close friends I made over the years without knowing when I could see them again or be able to hug them goodbye. But, having already done my PhD abroad, I was in general ready to move as far away as I needed to for the right opportunity. I had hoped to continue my academic journey in Europe, however, so I feel extremely fortunate to have ended up here in Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen has easily become my favourite city in Europe, and I cannot imagine a better place to do my Postdoc. Quality of life for academics in the Nordics is for the most part excellent, everyone in my department has been welcoming, and I love the culture of work-life balance in Denmark. I work with some amazing people so of course this helps make my experience an overwhelmingly positive one so far.

Which philosophical issue do you never get tired of thinking about?

The problem I have at the moment is that there are way too many philosophical issues that interest me than I have time for, even just within ‘The Future of Family Relationships’ project! Still, I’ve taken quite an interest in the area of Social Epistemology recently, so I’ll talk a bit about that.

During my studies, I didn’t find Epistemology terribly exciting (how many Gettier-style counterexamples are too many?) but I figured out rather late into the game that there are plenty of ongoing philosophical discussions in the field which explore the social dimensions of knowledge production, sharing, and communication. This area interested me a lot. I’ll share what I find to be a highly illuminating opening passage from the late Charles Mills’ paper on ‘White Ignorance’ below:

Charles Mills, ‘White Ignorance’, in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana

Engaging with these critical insights led me eventually to the literature on epistemic injustice, the latter of which focuses on the ethics of epistemic exchange between agents and groups. Epistemic injustice, originally coined by Miranda Fricker in her 2007 book of the same name, is the notion that people can be wronged in their capacity as knowers on account of identity prejudices and marginalising practices against them. I find this work absolutely fascinating, so this topic has since been an ongoing theme in my philosophical research. One way I brought this theme together with the ethics of the family for ‘The Future of Family Relationships’ project was by exploring ways that intimate others – such as family units and members – can act as unique vehicles of epistemic injustice. This led to the conception of my article titled ‘Partial Relationships and Epistemic Injustice’, which is now forthcoming in the Journal of Value Inquiry.

What are you currently working on?

As I’ve just mentioned, I have a paper on epistemic injustice and family relationships coming out, so I hope I’ll be able to share that soon. I also have many other project-related talks and articles in the pipeline. I gave a talk earlier this month on ‘Assisted reproduction as a case of social enhancement, and in a few weeks I’ll be giving another conference paper on ‘(De)pathologizing Infertility.’ In both of these talks, I endeavour to normatively revise the way we think about concepts like fertility and infertility in light of inclusivity concerns. For example, how might the fact that assisted reproductive technologies are framed as a response to a primarily medical need (i.e. to treat physical infertility) affect those who might require such interventions for other reasons, like same sex partners aspiring to be parents? What kind of moral and social consequences can our concepts in this realm have, and how should we strive to transform their implications for the better? These are the kinds of questions I’ll be occupied with for the foreseeable future.

What is your best advice to manage life in academia?

For me personally, having a strong support system, a life outside of academia, and a flexible work environment is absolutely essential. Apart from my formal mentors, I’m indebted to many kind friends both inside and outside of my field for moral support on all fronts – friends to commiserate with about seemingly endless streams of rejections, a second pair of eyes when I’m struggling to finish a paper, or encouragement to just keep going. As an early career researcher abroad just learning how to navigate the academic job market and the bureaucracies associated with international job-hunting, I’m grateful to have people rooting for me and I’m eager to pay it forward where possible.

I also make a point not to spend late nights at the office, in keeping with the Danish work-life balance, and to get in plenty of non-work-related activities on a day to day basis. I’ll rarely say no to a social invitation! Working during the Covid-19 lockdowns especially has shown me that I work best when I’m not sat in one spot indoors for the entire day. Luckily, public libraries and access to multiple university campuses across the city has made it easy to make an ‘office’ of different settings if I need a change of scenery. At one point, I had also designated one work day a week to start with a morning run around the local park with my colleagues. I always make time for these simple joys that make every day feel like a treat.

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