The Politicized Nature of Bioethics

The President’s Council on Bioethics, created in 2001 by President George W. Bush, was born out of a time when the conversation of bioethics, and specifically the ethics of human cloning, was at the national forefront. The cloning of mammals has become a possibility only 5 years prior and cloning technologies were a rapidly growing field. The Council, led by Leon Kass and made up of 16 other academics and professionals in the fields of medicine, biology, law, and ethics, was then tasked with providing official recommendations to the President on topics regarding human cloning for reproduction, human cloning for research, and their legal and ethical ramifications. Cloning moved from the realm of science to the political sphere as groups on every side called for federal oversight and regulation. Kass, appointed by a Republican president and representing a very white, very male group of highly educated professionals appeared to be influenced by both his own conservative views and those of his President when the council unanimously deemed human cloning for reproduction as unethical. Although Kass has asserted that “the Council’s work has been entirely free from any political manipulation or meddling by the White House,” (2005) it is difficult to deny the clearly conservative undertones inherent in the tone of Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry (2002). The main reason for deeming such cloning practices as unethical were not rooted in a concern for safety, but rather a concern for both the dignity of the cloned individual and “[the] elusive core of our humanity, those special qualities that make us more than beasts yet less than gods.” This mentality of inherent human dignity and assertion of a natural law that places man as ruler over all other species is one that comes from the United States’ long established protestantism, which has now become secularized into the notion of ethics that we subscribe to in the U.S.

Germany is an example of a country where this issue is not divided along party lines. Bioethical concerns are instead dealt with between techno-skeptics and techno-optimists Optimists believe theirs is a “battle between rationality and knowledge on the one hand and ignorance, emotionality, and moral fundamentalism on the other.” In Germany, it is usually geneticists and bioethicists who provide their expertise to inform policy decisions who take this position. On the other side, techno-skeptics are not against technology and developments, but rather they support the limiting of technology to emphasize what is at stakes, and who may be more vulnerable when using new technology. Those who fall under this camp are more in line with the belief of sanctity of life, or dignity of life that we know in the U.S. The key difference between American ethics and German ethics can be boiled down to a code of ethics that protects individual rights vs. a code of ethics that values and upholds the common good.

Braun’s model of managerial vs. republican discourse is helpful here because it allows us to widen our scope of what we can consider “ethical” if we are not solely limited to the U.S.-centric ideal of conservatism vs liberalism which frames policy debates but especially those related to reproductive technologies. Stepping away from the partisan model of policymaking will also allow us to reach a more just version of bioethics, which would address “broader issues of global justice in medical research and health disparities between industrialized and developing countries[…] concerns [which] appear to be entirely absent from the conservatives’ project” (Macklin 2012).

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.

6 replies on “The Politicized Nature of Bioethics”

Hi Ashley,
Thanks for the post! I appreciate your discussion of the tone of Kass’s article. I too found it to be biased in its language and this is something that Sabrina touched on as well. It is certainly important to adopt a global stance when considering the ethics of cloning as the US is a multicultural place. In the interest of protecting the values of representation for all voices in America, one can only hope that future administrations and review boards are pluralistic in their representation.

Hi Ashley! Thank you for your post! I really enjoyed your take on the readings and how each one is subtly weaved into the next. I think your point about how stepping out and away from the U.S.’s framework would be more just is important and, in my opinion, would even open a lot more doors than are open to us now. I wonder if the public saw it this way and understood fully how Germany, for example, worked in that sense, if that would change the opinions of the people. Or, going off of that, is the US already too far in and dug too deep into the hole of Conservatism vs Liberalism for it to even make a difference?

Hi Ashley,
As a fellow blogger for this week’s readings, I think you did a fantastic job in summarizing the main points from each article, while finding a way to weave together a conversation in which you assert many of your own interpretations and connections. I appreciated how you often focused on the different styles in a “code of ethics,” especially when comparing Germany with the United States. When you describe Germany as leaning more heavily towards a code of ethics that “values and upholds the common good,” I was reminded of Germany being a socialist state (if I’m not mistaken?). I wonder if these legal structures filter into human culture in ways that directly affect not only their beliefs on certain matters, but also their very mode of thinking about these topics. I also liked the quotes that you use: “the elusive core of humanity…” does well to support the notion of an “intuitionist epistemology” that is applied by Kass and his council.

I appreciate the comparative analysis in which Americans and Germans undertake and analyze bioethical topics. Previously, I had not understood it in terms of individualistic versus wholistic population. I also find it interesting that the The President’s Council on Bioethics consists of experts in biology, law, and ethics while Germany utilizes geneticists and bioethicists to form public policy. Is that a reflection of the population in these countries? What do we as a society value more when it comes to forming our opinions?

In our current political atmosphere, I find Germany’s bioethical conversations incredibly interesting in that they are not divided along party lines as you mention. Bioethical conversations are had instead between techno-skeptics and techno-optimists. 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. I’m glad you mentioned that in Germany, geneticists and bioethicists provide expertise to these policymakers. The President’s Council on Bioethics was made up of experts in biology and law, but Germany employs geneticists and bioethicists to inform public policy. I don’t know which one is better, but I find it interesting how these two countries approach bioethical conversations so differently.

Thanks Ashley! I agree with Ali regarding the German bioethical discourse and your excellent summary. The framing of decisions is fascinating as you point out the perspective of techno-skeptics versus techno-optimists rather than political or religious lines. Perhaps the hidden histories of shared regrets also plays as much a role in our decisions as our present conditions leading to the different choices of individual vs. group ethical points of view.

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