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.