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IEET > Rights > J. Hughes

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Drawing a Stem Cell Line in the Sand


J. Hughes
By J. Hughes
Betterhumans

Posted: Jan 12, 2005

Former lefty Wesley J. Smith is now a right-wing bioconservative, says James Hughes, and Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World will make you nostalgic for when progressives believed in progress

This latest book from lawyer-activist Wesley J. Smith is a clear example of the circuitous path that that bioconservative leftists take in becoming bioconservative right-wingers. The first step is skepticism at the possibility of human progress. Progressives used to believe in progress. From the 18th century to World War Two, the scientific secular wing of the Left was dominant. History was evolving towards a more free, equal and united world, founded on reason and science. Conservatives desperately clung to religion, reaction, the old order. Technological and political progress were seen as mutually reinforcing.

After World War Two–after the Bomb and Silent Spring and deconstructionism, after the counterculture and deep ecology and napalm–the Left turned hostile to the future, and its romantic, Luddite wing came to fore. Anything that came out of the corporate capitalist Machine’s laboratories could be presumed to be unsafe for humans and the environment, designed to commodify and oppress in the interest of profit. Ralph Nader’s campaigns against the unsafe technologies of corporations supplanted campaigns for full employment and more equitable access to technological abundance. The role of today’s "progressive" is to lie down in front of the bulldozer of technological progress, not to drive the bulldozer.

A crusader’s odyssey

Wesley J. Smith started his political career in this milieu as a crusading Naderite lawyer in California in the 1980s. The first two books he wrote in the late 1980s were empowerment guides for the clients of lawyers and doctors, followed by The Senior Citizens’ Handbook: A Nuts and Bolts Guide to More Comfortable Living in 1989. In 1990, Smith teamed with Ralph Nader himself and the two coauthored four books together, on health insurance, consumer rights, airline safety and the corrupting influence of corporate lawyers on American democracy.

Then, on November 1, 1992, a friend of Smith’s committed suicide. Frances, the friend, had long advocated self-determination in dying, and when, at 76, she was diagnosed with leukemia and developed a painful neurological disorder, she checked into a hotel and took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Smith was one friend to receive a goodbye note, and ended up going through her files to try to understand what led to her decision. He discovered the newsletters of the Hemlock Society, a group advocating "self-deliverance" and assisted suicide for the terminally ill. He felt that the assisted suicide movement had convinced his friend that suicide was her only option.

Smith was struck down in horror on the road to Damascus, and devoted himself thereafter to campaigning against this "culture of death" conspiracy. His column for Newsweek railing against "pro-euthanasia" organizations, and his 1997 book Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder, led him to the Christian Right, which shared his analysis. Since joining forces with the pro-life movement, Smith’s analysis of deathist culture has become ever more encompassing.

In the past 10 years, Smith the former Naderite has become one of the leading (anti-)bioethics ideologues of the US Right. His 2002 book, Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, was a roundhouse attack on American bioethicists as complicit apologists for abortion and euthanasia. On Amazon the folks who buy his books also buy right-wing polemics against liberalism, Europe, Islam, daycare and atheism, and on behalf of "Christian public policy" and Gospel-based bioethics. Smith is now a senior fellow of the Christian Right think tanks the Discovery Institute and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

Beware transhumanism

In 2002, Smith discovered a thread in the technocalyptic conspiracy that connected animal rights, personhood bioethics and transhumanism. In his October 2002 article "The Transhumanists" in the National Review Online, Smith warned that if we give rights to apes and take them away from embryos and the brain dead we will end up under a posthuman dictatorship. "Transhumanism envisions a stratified society presided over by genetically improved ‘post-human’ elites. Obviously, in such a society, ordinary humans wouldn’t be regarded as the equals of those produced through genetic manipulation," he says.

The religious right has eagerly embraced Smith’s analysis of an animal rights-bioethics-transhumanist conspiracy to enslave humanity 1.0. The Center for Bioethics and Culture dedicated its first conference to the theme "TechnoSapiens" and used Smith’s "The Transhumanists" as its motivating document. (Recently, CBC board member David Pauls argued that transhumanists were the re-emergence of the ancient Gnostic heretics, which will hopefully give Dan Brown an idea for his next bestseller.) The second TechnoSapiens meeting was held recently in Washington, DC, with Leon Kass, the Chair of the US President’s Council on Bioethics (PBC) going head-to-head with Nick Bostrom, the chair of the World Transhumanist Association.

In his new book, Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World, Mr. Smith again goes to Washington, this time to warn the new conservative power structure that embryonic stem cell research will lead to a posthuman future. Carrying coals to Newcastle you think? Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama have already made the same case from the bully pulpit of the PBC?

Not at all. Kass and Fukuyama only draw a general picture that connects "disrespect" for embryos and use of Prozac and Ritalin with a vaguely defined "posthuman future." Smith is much more specific. Smith isn’t worried about life extension or squishy attention deficit diagnoses. Smith sees one bright shining line we must not cross, lest society unravel: If we permit embryonic stem cell cloning, transhumanists will inexorably create a Brave New World.

Searching for human dignity

Although Smith’s book is focused on embryonic stem cell cloning, however, he shares Kass’s and Fukuyama’s quasi-religious devotion to preventing violations of "human dignity," which is now a stand-in in conservative bioethics for the unfashionable terms "sinful" and "evil." For the right-leaning biocons, all human life is due human dignity from conception to putrefaction, and many technologies, such as stem cell cloning, threaten human dignity. Their position is that we are only treated equally before the law because we are all recognized as members of the same species. And they argue that any technology that blurs human nature and our natural ways of life, such as reproductive technology, genetic enhancement or withdrawing life-sustaining treatments from the brain-dead, threatens respect for human dignity.

How do we know when we are being so unnatural that we threaten "human dignity?" Kass says we know when we feel something is yucky. Fukuyama says we can’t really change anything because humanness is a "Factor X" that "cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up factor X." Take Ritalin or get breast implants and we’ll all end up loving our assigned roles as brain-damaged Gammas serving our yuppy Alpha masters.

Biocapitalists and their bioethicist lackeys?

Smith doesn’t even attempt Fukuyama’s non-effort at defining the "humanness" in need of protecting, and, as does Kass, just assumes that the audience will see the same things he does as self-evidently abhorrent.

Especially embryonic stem cell cloning. Because it’s very bad. And it involves embryos. Most of Smith’s Consumer’s Guide is a detailed analysis of the recent history of US regulation of stem cells and cloning, and the role of the corporate biotech interests in hyping the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells.

On this latter point Smith again distinguishes his account from the Kass-Fukuyama line of general moral decay. Betraying his Naderite past (and by contrast demonstrating the political vacuity and circumspection of Kass and Fukuyama), Smith indicts biocapitalism as a coconspirator. Adult stem cells, Smith asserts, can provide all or more of the benefits promised by embryonic stem cells, but the adult stem cell researchers just aren’t as well organized or backed by pro-choice partisans.

There is a grain of truth here, and those defending science against the legions of ignorance occupying Washington, DC need to keep it in mind lest they spend too much scarce political capital defending a biotech dead-end.

On the other hand, one of the new and absurd arguments of both Christian Right and left-wing opponents of biotechnology, reflected in Smith’s "Rent an Ethicist" section, is that all bioethicists have been bought off by the biocapitalists. Supposedly every time Arthur Caplan argues against Kass’s yuck factor nonsense it’s because he’s a craven gold digger unwilling to leave Pfizer’s teat.

His evidence? Geron‘s ethics advisory board judged that the company’s embryonic stem cell research was ethical. But so did an overwhelming majority of ethicists and the American public. I guess we now know what to do with all those imprisoned Taliban. We can give them jobs on American institutional review boards to ensure that biotech research doesn’t get a pass from the technolibertarian consensus of American bioethics.

Needless to say most people in biotech would be puzzled by the description of American bioethicists as their faithful servants and apologists since they can’t turn on their television without seeing some deep thinker voicing grave concerns and "serious questions" about everything from painkillers to face transplants. The percentage of bioethicists who receive any financial support from the biocapitalists is miniscule. If Wesley wants to target biotech’s efforts to quash regulation by buying intellectual cover he needs to examine some of his new friends on the Right, such as Tech Central Station.

Scientism and sanctity

Smith is not a religious fundamentalist, but he knows how to push the Christian Right’s buttons. One theme in Consumer’s Guide is his counterposing of "scientism" to all those who believe in the "sacredness of human life." Quoting a PBS website, Smith says that people under the thrall of scientists and scientism–whose adherents would be also be "scientists," I guess–believe that "the scientific method (is the only) mode of reaching knowledge…science alone can render truth about the world and reality." This is a challenge for the religious who believe in the epistemological superiority of divine revelation.

But it gets even worse, because we rationalists and scientists also see science as an end in itself. Supposedly we in thrall to scientism want the guys in lab coats to build their nuclear reactors and gray goo without any social oversight. Of course there is another grain of truth here, since those who actually understand science are more likely to support scientific research and intellectual freedom. But it is the Christian Right that has climbed into bed with the anti-regulatory forces, and enabled George Bush to appoint chemical polluter lobbyists to head the EPA, loggers to run the federal parks, and so on. And though the smash-the-state Bushies can’t make up their mind whether to worship God or Mammon, with an occasional human sacrifice to Ares thrown in, one god they don’t blow smoke at is scientism.

Finally, Smith brings it back around to the transhumanism-as-false-religion theme by pointing out that scientism is even a replacement for religious faith, since we rationalists believe science is a more reliable provider of rewards such as immortality than religion. Smith quotes Betterhumans editor-in-chief Simon Smith (who was actually quoting secular humanist Patrick Innis, but never mind) as saying, "Transhumanists unabashedly assert that, without gods, it is up to humanity to ‘play God,’ striving to achieve for humanity a total control over its physical and mental state, in some ways similar to that promised in supernatural beliefs." As more people in the Bible belt get wind of the transhumanist heresy, I’m going to have to start opening my mail with a stick in the backyard.

Knowing the enemy

Read Smith’s book if you want to understand the science, recent history and future policy of embryonic stem cell research from the biocon point of view. But the really great thing about Smith’s book from a transhumanist perspective is that he shares our view of the biopolitical terrain, with the bioconservatives and human-racists at one end and the transhumanists at the other. His description of transhumanism as "futuristic misanthropy" is a little misleading, but then he does quote extensively from my "war whoops" and calls me "movement propagandist" and "one of the movement’s most vehement polemicists." So how wrong could he be?

Consumer’s Guide may not have the breadth of Our Posthuman Future, and it is too urgent to be a sleeping aid such as Kass’s Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Dignity. But he spells our name right, makes it clear why the Christian Right and human-racists see embryonic stem cells as an apocalyptic issue and discusses what they want to do about it. Given the current complexion of Washington, DC, Consumer’s Guide is now essential reading.


James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut USA, where he teaches health policy and serves as Director of Institutional Research and Planning. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)
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