This week’s readings tie closely with our discussions from last week regarding the bioethics debate, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. Kathrin Braun’s account of the debate on reproductive and genetic technologies in Germany talks about the various discourses in linking ethics to politics surrounding the debate in bioethics. Macklin then goes into the neoconservative view on bioethics, as well as some of the criticisms in the rhetoric of new conservatives, thus increasing the split of the two “camps” (Braun, 43). The third reading up for discussion goes back to last week’s reading Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics, as Kass offers his remarks regarding the work of the President’s Council on Bioethics to essentially lay the groundwork for which the Council operates and to challenge the debate on public bioethics.
Braun closely examines the interconnectedness of policy and ethics in Germany and the ways that the German view might decrease polarization between the conservative view and liberal view. She goes into a discussion on the differing views of techno-skeptics and techno-optimists and how they primarily differ on how they interpret the issue of biotechnology. “Techno-optimists” give more credit to society in their ability to calculate risks associated with new technology and recognize the benefits of technology. Ethics is a deliberate choice and should add structure to the delicate task of “balancing diverging values,” best done by professionals in medicine and research (Braun, 43). On the other hand, skeptics believe that technology is limited, and society does not benefit from it as much as it pays. Motivation of techno-skeptics can come from either a primarily religious standpoint, or more secular. To me, the more noteworthy of the two is the secular view of “common ethos” coming from a post-Nazi era view that every life is worth living (Braun, 43). In order to discuss these diverging views, as Braun claims, a certain type of discourse must be present. Taking a more “managerial” approach, one focuses more on the potential benefits and risks posed by biotechnology and that ethics can help mitigate these risks. The “republican” discourse is a more social view in that risks associated with biotechnology can cause social problems and can only be amended by “citizen engagement” (Braun, 44).
In terms of a legal context, both the German Embryo Protection Act of 1991 and the German Constitution highly value human life and human dignity. Whereas the restrictive law focuses more on the human embryo, human cloning, and other reproductive technologies, the Constitution ties back to the common ethos views of secular techno-skeptics regarding the unmatched status of human dignity above all other rights. The techno-skeptics extended this argument to their denouncement of prenatal genetic diagnoses (PGD), claiming that it “endangers the moral foundations of German society” (Braun, 45). I ask you all to weigh in here: how would a techno-optimist view PGD in terms of the moral risks and benefits? Yes, they try to look at the benefits of technology, but how do you think they would overcome the battle between knowledge and emotionality/moral fundamentalism?
The split between techno-skeptics and techno-optimists furthered upon Nida-Rümelin’s article about human dignity only emerging with self-esteem, as well as with Singer’s views on newborns not having a right to life (Braun, 47). Braun then concluded with her own views of the benefits of the republican discourse and how it increases democracy in legislation, as well as broadening the discussion on ethical issues by means of considering these “medical issues” as more social ones (Braun, 49).
The debate on bioethics is not as much a recent topic of discussion as is the labeling of conservatives and liberals. Macklin, a “liberal, humanitarian bioethicist” speaks avidly against the new conservative bioethicists and the way they speak/write about issues regarding biotechnology and ethical concerns (Macklin, 42). She thoroughly criticizes the rhetoric of neoconservatives with four main points: the use of poetic language instead of empirical evidence, misleading terminology, offensive analogies, and generalizing without citing or quoting (Macklin, 38). A prominent example of the use of metaphors to overshadow reasoned arguments is in Levin’s mission statement on conservative bioethicists: “to prevent our transformation into a culture without awe filled with people without souls” (Macklin, 37). This rather extreme and “mystical” statement is quite vague, but emotionally charged. To me, he is trying to say that the practices of ART, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research are “soulless” and that the outcomes will create generic, non-diverse individuals. What do you all think this mission refers to?
Another noteworthy example of one of the criticisms of conservative rhetoric concerning sweeping generalizations is in reference to the “unquestioning” and “unswerving commitment” (Macklin, 35, 36) to the conservative view. Both Kass and Meilaender, names we have studied in this course, hold these narrow views on conservatism and divergence from “the natural.” In an article written by Meilaender, he essentially claims that the ulterior motive of bioethicists is to have a say in committees and ethics boards in exchange for supporting the progression of science and technology (Macklin, 36). This seemingly “mutual” transaction 1. assumes that bioethicists have no limits on the growth of scientific advances, and 2. ignores the significant contributions that they have made, especially in legislation to protect individual rights (Macklin 37). This ties in quite well with the next reading for the week, as well as our classroom discussion on the makeup of the President’s Council, as this merger between scientific research and bioethics is what keeps policymakers and elected officials grounded in this debate.
As per our discussion last week, Kass’s appointment to the Council was quite controversial to many. Not only this, but President Bush’s Christian ties were also seen as a point of controversy, especially in the appointment of officials to the Council. In Reflections on Public Bioethics: A View from the Trenches, Kass defends the work that the Council has done on the debate of bioethics and the creation of the Council to give more legitimacy to the pro-life, Christian president. He contrasts these goals with those of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), saying that the focus is less on “human subjects research” and more on advising the President on bioethical concerns and to “search deep into human matters” (Kass, 223, 224). He commends the diversity of religious backgrounds, political affiliations, and professions of the members of the Council, emphasizing twice in his report that they are NOT a council OF bioethicists, but more a council ON bioethics. While I do appreciate the acknowledgement that the members of the Council are, like the rest of the country, divided in their views on embryo research, I still find it troubling that some of the members are quite extreme in their views. For example, drawing upon the example that Macklin provided, Gilbert Meilaender, a professor in Christian ethics, is a prime example of someone who is unwavering in the thought that bioethicists are “allies” of medical technology. His views are known to be extreme and flawed, as he makes sweeping (and inaccurate) generalizations (Macklin, 36). Does this create a more “stacked” council in which reaching an “artificial consensus” is more likely to occur (Kass 227)?
The second part of Kass’s report goes into more detail on the five reports that the Council has published. Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry focuses on the issue of cloning and the broader context of human procreation, healing, and the value of research. The Council also unanimously agrees that the practice of cloning-to-produce children is unsafe and jeopardizes liberty and freedom of the family (Kass, 231). In Monitoring Stem Cell Research, they simply discuss where the issue of stem cell research stands today and provide an overview of ethical and policy debates, as well as the scientific background of the practice. Beyond Therapy tackles the complex issue of future directions and uses of biotechnology that go beyond simply healing the body, but that center around human desires of “sharper minds, “stronger bodies,” and “happier souls” (Kass, 235). Being Human is a more holistic account of the delicate balance between appreciating being human and staying human amidst new technologies being developed. The main question of this report (and for us to reflect upon) is: “molding or beholding?” or in other words, do we change nature in order to improve it, or do we appreciate it as it stands? The last section, Reproduction and Responsibility, discusses and reviews all the regulatory activity surrounding ART, sex selection, and human embryonic research. They break down 6 of the legal proposals made about practices in reproduction. All in all, the Council, according the Kass, has made great efforts in extending the debate on bioethics. Their aim is less to “advance public understanding” on this complex issue, but more to make these topics more visible to the public (Kass, 245).