IEET > Rights > J. Hughes
Hughes on the Rumble in Albany
Jul 14, 2006  

In 1995 US President Clinton appointed 18 professional bioethicists to a National Bioethics Advisory Commission to advise him on research ethics. After the announcement of Dolly the sheep having been cloned in 1997 the NBAC was asked propose cloning policy. The NBAC advised that the NSF/NIH should fund therapeutic stem cloning but that there should be a five year moratorium on reproductive cloning research because it was still too unsafe for human subjects. (In fact, it is still too unsafe for human subjects). The NBAC expired in 2001.

In 2001 US President Bush appointed conservative bioethicist Leon Kass to head the President’s Council on Bioethics to advise him on embryonic stem cell policy. Kass appointed a majority of conservatives to his commission, mostly from outside of professional bioethics, including neoconservative Frank Fukuyama who just published Our Posthuman Future, an attack on enhancement. The Kass commission was perceived as being a lurch to the right, well outside of the mainstream of the generally liberal bioethics discourse. Kass was not principally interested in “embryo land” and his first priority was producing the PBC’s report Beyond Therapy, also an attack on human enhancement.

In that same period Greg Stock (2002) published Redesigning Humans, defending genetic enhancement, and liberal environmentalist Bill McKibben (2003) published Enough attacking enhancement. The Christian Right issued its Manifesto on Biotechnology and Human Dignity (2002) and the Vatican published “Human Persons Created in the Image of God“ (2002) both attacking human enhancement. The Christian Right started to pour millions of dollars into Christian and conservative bioethics institutions, such as the Center for Bioethics and Culture which then hosted a 2003 meeting on the advent of “technosapiens.” The   beltway Right started the journal New Atlantis to promote conservative bioethics and support the Kassites on the PBC.

Bioethics was immediately polarized, and enhancement issues became a central debate in the struggle in bioethics. Leading the liberal charge to defend bioethics from the Right’s onslaught, and their bioconservative fellow travelers among liberal and the left, was the Arthur Caplan and his protege Glenn McGee, the editor of the American Journal of Bioethics.  One sign of the new era was the 2004 American Society of Bioethics and Humanities meetings in Philadelphia, which saw a counter-demonstration to the addresses of Leon Kass and Frank Fukuyama, and the veteran bioethicists Beauchamp and Childress, as they accepted their lifetime achievement awards, reminiscing about the genial bioethics debates of the 1970s, and lamenting the polarization of liberals and conservatives.

In 2005, when Kass was replaced by Edmund Pellegrino, a conservative Catholic physician, as chair of the PBC the liberals were rapturous because Pellegrino was seen as a respectful member of the bioethics fraternity.

Yesterday Glenn McGee’s conference on “Bioethics & Politics: The Future of Bioethics in a Divided Democracy” started here in Albany with the mission statement of healing the rift in bioethics.

Political influence has an evolving role in bioethics and the emergence of new politically active bioethics institutions. Some argue that bioethics is becoming politicized. Others argue it is coming into its own in a political world. Still others argue that a long-standing liberal bias in bioethics is at long last being corrected. At this conference those questions will be discussed and debated with the goal of reaching some areas of general agreement, clarifying disagreements and thinking broadly about the future of bioethics in a democratic society.

The conference has done a wonderful job of bringing together the left and right in keynote addresses and and panels, with speakers like Art Caplan, Alta Charo, Jonathan Moreno and Laurie Zoloth representing the left, and Eric Cohen (The New Atlantis), Wesley Smith (Discovery Institute) and Nigel Cameron representing the Right. Edmund Pellegrino gave a dinner lecture on Aristotle and the positive and negative kinds of political engagement.

Embryo politics has featured centrally here, as well as discussion of universal healthcare (both Cohen and Smith asserted that conservatives should support universal healthcare), but enhancement is again one of the issues in the mix. I spoke on a panel on enhancement with Marcy Darnovsky from the Left bioconservative Center for Genetics and Society. The discussion went well with some of the bioethicists attesting afterward that they now understood themselves to be technoprogressives.

But is the mission of peace-making a realisitic one? Is it really possible to reconcile or compromise on the status of the embryo, or is the best that human-racists and personhood advocates can do is agree to disagree and continue to try to craft policies consistent with their moral and philosophical position? Obviously I think compromise is not possible on these fundmanetal issues. Was it a compromise between abolitionists and slavers for slaves to be counted as 3/5s of a human being? Perhaps, but not one that recommends the idea of moral compromise. On this point the spokewoman from Focus on the Family and I agree: no number of layers of cautionary research subjects protocols will satisfy the right to life folks if embryos are still being used in research.

Right now I’m listening to an address by the progressive lawyer Alta Charo, who served on the Clinton bioethics commission. She’s speaking on the growing influence of the Christian Right in US policy as the “endarkenment” of American politics. She is noting that a Vatican spokeman had opined that scientists who participate in embryonic stem cell research could be excommunicated. She is making the point that certain areas of scientific research should be seen as categories of speech and thought covered by human rights. In other words, we have a basic right to ask certain questions about, and conduct certain experiments on, ourselves and the universe. This right to scientific research must of course be balanced against other rights, such as those of public safety and the rights of human subjects.

Perhaps this is where the bioethics struggle becomes most stark, the same question that the Church and Enlightenment faced with Galileo and astronomy. What would the ideal outcome of a “Politics and Astronomy” conference been in 1633? A compromise between the Church and Galileo that the Sun and Earth revolve around each other? That Galileo had a right to look at the stars but not disturb the social order with his wild pronouncements? I think this is what the technoprogressive and liberal bioethics agenda is all about; defending the Enlightenment against the forces of endarkenment that seek to strip us of our rights in the name of “the natural order.”


Sorry to be so late, but I found this searching for Alta’s original “endarkenment” quote.

Were Clinton’s “professional bioethicists” conservative or not? Is Kass professional or not?

Beverly B. Nuckols, MD

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