Bioethics and the New Wave

Leon Kass’s Reflections on Public Bioethics: A view from the Trenches looks to explain what the councils mission was, how it worked with the public, and review the final outcome of the Council’s first term. Leon Kass breaks down his remarks into three parts: the discussion of some special features of public bioethics, overview of the highlights of the Councils work, and some general observations. He starts with the Council’s Public Ways, explaining how the council was created and defending that they were indeed a public body subject to “public scrutiny”. Leon continues detailing that this committee was different than most as it was tasked with a very morally controversial subject in the midst of a president whose presidency was already under fire for how he was elected, along with very strong conservative and religious ties. The council was also different, as it wasn’t tasked by just asking the morality and justification for stem cell research, but rather 5 main functions. It seemed to me that the council was tasked with not only giving it’s advisory on cloning research, but giving it’s remarks on the state of bioethics, and how this specific technology would affect bioethics as a whole. However, outside of the philosophical discussion, Kass also mentions that the council needed to promote public discourse of the issue to allow for the general public to be able to comprehend the issue at large. I found it kind of ironic though because while one of the councils objectives were to inform the public, the makeup of the council was not indicative of the population. As we discussed in class it predominately was made up of all white males. This only became more ironic as Kass went on to identify the types of individuals who were on the panel. None the less, Kass continues to defend the members of its council by continuing to describe the diversity of it’s panel and discrediting any notion that the panel was a “hyper-politicized group of right-wing fundamentalists, seeking to impose pro-life views on the nation”. I thought this was amusing because he was basically labeled such in Ruth Macklin’s article. As Kass continued to defend the council and it’s task, I couldn’t help but wonder, why weren’t these explanations of the council included in the original paper? Surely, they could’ve anticipated the backlash that could’ve come from such an issue, and since informing the public was one of the main goals of the council, why not highlight these points in the preface?

Kass than goes onto the second point of the Councils work. Kass insists that he is very proud of the council and it’s work, and tries to give a summary and evaluation of what they did, as all the 5 published works of the council “try to embody our search for a richer bioethics”. Kass outlines each of the 5 publications starting with Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry. Given that this was the one we read for class, I will primarily focus on it. Kass gives the 5 major features of the report starting with “the larger human contexts in which controversies over this innovation must be considered”. Following this, the next feature is that surrounding terminology of “human cloning”. I thought this was particularly interesting because last week as a class we struggled to differentiate the difference between “cloning-to-produce-children” and “cloning-for-biomedical-research” which Kass neatly outlines in this section. The third point outlines how the council unanimously opposed cloning to produce children. I found their reasoning suspect, as they say, “it never could be attempted safely”, which I think is honestly ignorant, however their following arguments were more convincing. The fourth feature gets into the meat of the subject by displaying the diversity that the council had on determining if cloning-for-biomedical-research should be allowed and deemed morally all right. Both sides of the argument are coherently and well displayed in the brief, not giving a conclusion on the matter, which I thought was appropriate given the purpose of the council. Finally, they offered proposals for a permanent ban on cloning to produce children, while the consensus varied on cloning for medical research.

Lastly, Kass talks about the general observations and challenges that came about. Kass concludes that their works success is not truly known, other than the fact that it has made some noise. I personally believe that since it created such a response, that it was successful in bringing the topic into the spotlight. Kass thinks that the success in terms of policy making fell short, as he remarks that it is “hard to educate anyone about an issue unless you are prepared to tell them what they ought to do”. The last thing I noticed was Kass arguing that the “life principle”, although an important issue and one that is highly publicized, is not the only issue that should be considered in public bioethical discourse. I found it more intriguing given his label as a conservative bioethicist. Ultimately, since these councils publishing are over 15 years old, I want to know what has changed since then? Has this council impacted the way we engage discourse about bioethics and morality? Also, has the stance on cloning for reproduction, and cloning for research changed since then?


The next reading was The New Conseratives In Bioethics: Who Are They and What Do They Seek? By Ruth Macklin. This articles is just what the title is, discussing the new conservative movement in bioethics, who are the proponents, and what are their positions. Macklin argues that this new wave is being branded by bioethicists who self-proclaim themselves as “conservatives”, consequently causing all those that oppose them to be liberals. However, Macklin claims that this isn’t the case. Since there are “an array of widely divergent and often nuanced positions”, just because a bioethicist disagrees with a conservative should not make them by default liberal. The new wave of self-proclaimed conservatives differ from those past like Leon Kass who she mentions. This new wave are opponents against biotechnology with any term “artificial”. They also are against any reproductive freedom such as abortion and stem cell research that involves destruction of human embryos. Her main point spotlights that it is very difficult to pinpoint broad views on these issues into two categories of either conservative or liberal. She cites the FINRRAGE as an example of a group having very radical ideas that could be labeled conservative, but is not necessarily so. The ultimate argument is that not only are the lines blurred now, but shifts throughout history have also made the categorization very difficult. Macklin then shifts to the specific “mission” of the new conservatives, which is, “to prevent our transformation into a culture without awe filled with people without souls”. Macklin also points out that these conservative bioethicists claim that their points are 100% true, which is nonsense. Macklin then moves on to the faults that the new conservatives have such as not relying on empirical evidence and sound arguments, but rather “metaphors and slogans”. Given the evidence that Macklin presents against this new wave, why doesn’t Macklin just go out on a limb and proclaim that these “conservative bioethicist” aren’t bioethicist at all? If such arguments are grounded it weak metaphors, slogans, and absence of critiques of opponents, what gives them any credibility in the grand scheme? Macklin presents the same case by saying, “the latter are  not  bioethicists  at  all.  They are  something  else—social  critics, perhaps—who  rely  on  dramatic impact  and  rhetorical  persuasion  rather than  rational  argument  to  convince their  readers.” However, she mentions refuting them is a mistake as it is possible to be “a bioethicist and also a social critic”.


What I found to be of particular interest were the ways the conservatives deployed their arguments against opponents, many of which relate to how President Trump handles his opponents. It makes me think that since Trump had such success with it, will these conservative Bioethicists have a strong pull over the public? I guess the last thing to be asked about this article is it possible to bridge the gap between mainstream bioethicists and conservatives?