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Investigating the Intersection Between Anthropological Discourse and Public Policy in Bioethical Matters of Human Cloning

Investigating the role of public policy in human cloning brings to light the complexity yet importance of our national discourse on bioethics. As many of the prominent figures in this debate have stated, the technology of human cloning crosses over a line that has never been crossed in the past. This places the entirety of human society at a unique place of moral pioneership that brings to attention conversations involving the role of biotechnology and science in serving humanity. Regardless of individual opinions on the morality of the issue itself, all parties are in agreement that multifaceted consideration and prudence is obligatory in order to most responsibly proceed in taking ethical action. However, the actual process of decision making proves to be immensely difficult. The diversity of America in every imaginable regard—socioeconomic history, cultural background and religious beliefs, education level, among many others—presents a multiplicity of voices that add nuance and ample disagreements to the national debate. At this current time, attempts at drafting federal legislation on the issue of human cloning have failed, though the debate continues with intensity. Not only do personal beliefs on the role of science in society filter into the discourse, but also beliefs on the role of the federal government in protecting individual autonomy while securing the overall good of society. 

One of the prominent voices of the debate came from the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB). This council was appointed under the Bush administration, with Bush appointing Leon Kass as the chairman, and Kass appointing the rest of the 17 member council. According the Kass, the diversity of academic background, cultural practices and religious beliefs among the members of the board make their council an excellent environment for multifaceted consideration of the debate on human cloning (Kass, 2002). Each member possessed advanced degrees and unique expertise in their respective fields. In striving to detach themselves initially from the impasse experienced in the public policy arena, one of their primary intents was to clarify the jargon behind this new technology while presenting many different viewpoints in order to stimulate continued debate. They believed that their cumulative expertise allowed them to advise politicians and members of the public, but stressed that the crux of the decision making had to come from the opinion of the general public, whom Kass described as the rightful arbiters of these highly public matters (Kass, 2005). 

Overall, the council appears to stress caution regarding the use of cloning technologies. Their unanimous opinion involves the total banning of cloning-to-produce-children, and support either a political moratorium or immediate regulation regarding cloning-for-biomedical-research. In my opinion, two levels of focus generally describe the foundation of their arguments: first, when investigating the potential proximate ramifications of this technology, they give consideration to the uncertain safety of the mother and child, and some members also call into account the moral status of the embryo. Second, the ultimate implications may involve what they describe as “a devaluation of human goods,” namely human dignity, respect for the weak, and protection of the family and individual identity. Kass mentions the code of ethics from the Nuremberg trials quite frequently, and uses the concepts of equal beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice to support their call for caution (Kass, 2002). 

On the other side of the national debate, many bioethicists are quick to label the council and similar opinions as belonging to political conservatism. According to self-described “liberal humanitarian bioethicist” Ruth Macklin, prominent individuals such as Kass, Krauthammer, and Neuhaus present insufficient arguments for their stance of reluctance. Macklin points out differences in rhetorical style between the liberal and conservative sides of the debate by suggesting that conservative dialogue places emphasis on an “intuitionist epistemology” that they view as self-evident. They rely on broad concepts of human dignity without much clarity and give value to “deep moral sentiments.” She brings as an example the viewpoint that “children are a gift [from God],” an argument that may stand as self-evident among people from similar religious backgrounds, but is not necessarily the case for all individuals. Macklin notes that Kass’s style of rhetoric actually serves as a barrier to productive debate, which is antithetical to the intent of their council. In order to properly engage not only the general public but also the community of scientists, politicians, and bioethicists—the experts in their fields of study—it is necessary to engage in more common discourse without such heavy reliance on vague and emotionally-charged rhetoric (Macklin, 2006).

As presented above, there is often correlation between religious beliefs and the tendency to use emotion-filled rhetoric with powerful concepts such as “human dignity” when looking at the morality of human cloning. While the non-religious and generally liberal group of bioethicists may find it difficult establishing common ground for debate when conversing with those from religious backgrounds, certain voices present compelling reasons for the compatibility of religion and discourse on human cloning. In specifically the Jewish context, Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz elaborates upon personal beliefs to question the inherent stereotype that religious discourse is close-minded to the debate. Breitowitz points out that humans were created in the image of God, the ultimate Creator. God gifts humans with creativity, the capacity to partner alongside Him in the ultimate mission of alleviating suffering, and the obligation to make moral judgements given our capability for rational thinking. He acknowledges the tension between leaning on human reasoning and remembering a stance of utmost humility before God, but asserts that the latter consideration should not be a hindrance towards the former: in other words, his religious beliefs compel him to more critically engage in the debate to best consider the most societally beneficial action as a whole (Breitowitz, 2004).

At this time, the weight of complexity makes it feel that adding a whole other national discourse would just convolute our understanding even more. However, a brief analysis of the German conversation on the bioethics of human cloning presents a valuable alternative that can be used for comparison as we strive to productively take action in our own national debate. It is interesting that proponents and opponents are not drawn across political lines of liberalism vs. conservatism in Germany, but a whole spectrum of political beliefs can be found in each of their categories: techno-optimists vs. techno-skeptics. The debate constantly wavers under a tension between “managerial discourse” and “Republican discourse.” The former focuses on knowledge from experts, functions largely on risk-benefit analysis, narrows the debate to add focus, and serves to help make “public opinion rational” and better informed. The latter focuses on discourse regarding the broader scope of human goods and the meaning of humanity, simultaneously allowing for consideration of religious beliefs and the ethics of social justice (Braun, 2005). The two perspectives effectively complement one another in a way that could perhaps be of value to the current debate in our own nation. 

In taking a step back, we see value in engaging in this debate on bioethics not only because it is a topic of utmost concern for the state of our nation and the evolution of humanity, but also because of the rich anthropological investigation it entails as we observe tensions, limitations, and the complexity of human nature in our highly structured society. Much like the format that Leon Kass marshalled in the council’s broad focus on human society, attempting to initially refrain from asserting directionality and instead simply giving merit to the construction of multiple viewpoints, anthropology likewise aims to provide the freedom in pursuing a holistic understanding. Kass leaned on certain truths that were driven by intuition, in some regards similar to the activity of the anthropological researcher who investigates issues that aren’t necessarily observable based on quantifiable figures. However, just as critics demanded that Kass ground his discourse in concrete rhetoric in order to more effectively communicate on common grounds, it is important to remember that anthropology not only serves to increase the exciting freedom of academic exploration, but also acts as a potent tool towards informing public policy and grounding many other areas of human society. It is under these tensions that we may flourish in advancing closer towards productive discourse, social justice, and the overall betterment of human society. 

SOURCES

Kathrin Braun, “Not Just for Experts: The Public Debate about Reprogenetics in Germany.” Hastings Center Report 35 (2005): 42-49.

Leon R. Kass, Human Cloning and Human Dignity (President’s Council on Bioethics, 2002).

Leon R. Kass, Reflections on Public Bioethics: A View from the Trenches,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 15 (2005): 221-250.

Ruth Macklin, “The New Conservatives in Bioethics: Who are they and what do they seek?” Hastings Center Report 36 (January-February 2006): 34-43.

Yitzchok Breitowitz, “What’s So Bad about Human Cloning?” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (2004): 325-341.

By Sabrina Jin

Rising junior at Emory University, double majoring in biology and cultural anthropology. Aspiring medical anthropologist in the field of public health policy.

6 replies on “Investigating the Intersection Between Anthropological Discourse and Public Policy in Bioethical Matters of Human Cloning”

Thanks Sabrina! When I was reading your post, it occurred to me that you have the insights of an anthropologist. When I looked at your bio in order to get to the reply section it turned out I was right! As such, when I read you’re writing it’s almost like channelling one of the lectures! One of the things that you’ve pointed out seems actually probably the most important lesson of all: that is that the lensing, concealed bias and selection processes that they go into what we know of as “bioethics” as well as pretty much any aspect of human society. After wading through the Presidential Council Bioethics document for last week, then considering the selection of its expert panel in class and then reading the articles for tomorrow, I realized the unexpected depth of my ignorance in areas outside of my area of expertise. Though I took more sciences than humanities years ago, it appears to me that reflection, refraction and relativity are universal principles not limited to physics. Your summary statement really hits home. Thanks!

Hi Sabrina,
Thanks for the post! I appreciated your discussion of Breitowitz’s view on human cloning in the Jewish context. It reminded me of the Broyde article, “Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law” in that Broyde too discusses the religious necessity to propel scientific progress forward, as a benefit to society as a whole. I think this in a really enlightened stance and something we also saw as an important consideration in bioethics from a Hindu standpoint through Bhattacharya’s book. She did not discuss cloning in much depth but I am curious to see her interpretation of the Hindu perspective on cloning. I also appreciated your discussion of the wielding of broad conceptual ideas such as “human dignity” in the dialogue of bioethics.

Hi Sabrina! Thanks for your post. I thought you did a really nice job summarizing the readings for this module and especially the way that you tied them all together. I really enjoyed the way you connected anthropology to the readings and added that spin onto it. Like you, I also found it very interesting that the beliefs that people held in Germany were not cut on optical lines but more classified based off on how people tended to think. I think if this were a way in which people thought and saw themselves here in the US, it could possibly rid many of our nations problems and the massive divide between political parties. In addition, your point at the end of your post on how these tensions will help us develop and progress in the future. Having debates like these and those in the field of bioethics are what advances our society and will ultimately help promote our society into one that is better. Nice job!

Hi Sabrina,

Thank you for your post! I appreciate how you blogged about this week’s readings. I thought you summarized this week’s reading very well. You connected each one of the articles centering on the holistic anthropological view on the emergence of human cloning well. I like the center message you try to convey in the blog post: the drastically different views experts from different fields on human cloning reflect the common respects we hold towards the dignity of human life. Despite the varying views, there is a common ground in terms of how seriously we take the conflicts of biotechnology advancements and bioethics.
I really like how you compared the political inclination in Germany with the political inclination in the United States and relates them to the differences in opinions towards human cloning in the two countries. We often think the western countries as an entirety, neglecting the fact that the idealogy within the western hemisphere could be different. Taking international views on the regulations of human cloning is both necessary and beneficial – it’s necessary because the discussion of human cloning should take place on a global scale, it’s beneficial because looking across the decisions of other countries could help us to see how things could be look at from a different light.

Sabrina, you articulated your points very well and did a good job embedding the readings into your understanding of how people undertake bioethics and particularly cloning. Maybe you and I are bias but I agree with the significance of anthropology when shaping public policy. I found it particularly interesting that Braun states the German parliament believes “that biomedicine should never be delegated to science or expert bodies.” He goes further as to say that “political engagement” is chief to conversation of biomedical issues. Kass reiterates this point and repeatedly states the need for political guidance in topics like cloning. While politics is established to be essential to issues in biomedicine, how do we form those regulations? I believe this is where the most disagreement is found. You established the two sides in which people undertake this issue- rhetoric versus concrete facts. Macklin is a firm believer in hard facts swaying public opinion more so than Kass’ emotional charged language, but I have to disagree with Mackin. If modern political climate has shown us anything, its that majority of Americans do not trusts scientists. In the age of “fake news,” I believe the strongest argument are those made passionately and with an understanding of the targeted population you are making policy for. It sounds like anthropology ! I admire your belief in anthropology’s ability to promote “freedom of academic exploration.” For me this consists of analyzing public opinion and practice on issues like cloning- that is where effective policy making will happen.

Great job Sabrina! I’m glad you mentioned the debate between techno-optimists and techno-skepticists as discusses in Braun’s article because I thought this was very interesting. Braun examines the bioethical policy debate in Germany and its two sides: techno-skepticists, those who refer to traditional, Christain values and techno-optimists, those who promote a secular, rights-based approach. Braun writes: “Techno-optimists often interpret the conflict over biomedicine as a battle between rationality and knowledge on the one hand and ignorance, emotionality, and moral fundamentalism on the other—in short, as a battle between modernity and antimodernity” (43). Techno-optimists highlight the potential benefits of technology and believe that the risks of biomedical research can be calculated and controlled by society. For Techno-skepticists, the conflict is about human hubris in challenging Christian principles, a description I found especially interesting. They fear the progression of technology will cause issues later down the road: “they underscore the limits of technological solutions and the price that individuals and society might have to pay for them” (Braun 43). To me, this echoed themes from previous readings about fearing God and consequence.

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