Bioethics, debates, politics, public policy

Bioethics is biopolitics

Kathryn Hinsch, founder of the Women’s Bioethics Project and the Women’s Bioethics Blog recommended the questions and answers from an article by Joshua Perry published in the Journal of Legal Medicine. (It cost $32 to access – perhaps we ought to talk about open access in publishing.)

Perry notes that others have noted that bioethics has always been “biopolitics,” it just took a while for the political angle to “arrest the attention of so many commentators.”

In the introductory essay to the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Jeffrey P. Bishop and Fabrice Jotterand note: “Bioethics has always been a biopolitics and the political dimension is only now coming into relief for bioethicists.” Writing in the May-June 2006 issue of the Hastings Center Report, Jeffrey Kahn echoes this sentiment when he comments: “Bioethics has always been involved in policy issues and the politics surrounding them.” So, despite a history of political intersections, why has bioethics and its entanglement with politics only recently arrested the attention of so many commentators?

The attention shouldn’t surprise anyone. Multiple events have worked together to increase public attention on bioethics questions. Along with the evolution of medical technology and expectations in the treatment of patients who once would have died, the backlash against Roe v. Wade juxtaposed with assisted reproductive techniques, the “right to die” movement alongside of the advance directive, there’s also the emergence of the internet and instant communication that is both personal and impersonal.

Oh, and there was the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep and Hwang Wu Suk, the “rock star” cloner turned fake.

There’s also the insular nature of the community of bioethics, which I believe actually limits the debate. Don’t look for a single “anti-abortion” much less “pro-life” viewpoint in the lists of contributors at the Women’s Bioethics Blog site or the editors and pseudoeditors who post at the blog of the American Journal Of Bioethics. I’m not sure there’s a conservative on the lists, and can identify only 2 or 3 that self-identify as believers. William Saletan’s much commented about article this month pointed me to Dan Callahan and other’s comments on the politicization of bioethics, including the exclusion of conservatives and religious ethicists, and the notion of “Progressive Bioethics.”

CALLAHAN: Just first a comment on John’s thesis. I would say my hardest struggle at the Hastings Center – I ran the place for 27 years; my hardest struggle was getting the secular philosophers to even allow a theologian, liberal or conservative, to even come to our meetings. Again and again I would say, what about so-and-so? No, no theologians. And the thing that was very striking, how many of the secular philosophers, particularly analytically trained, were extraordinarily hostile to religion. And I just fought year after year saying, let’s get some in and they just wouldn’t – I mean, I did it because I ran the place, but they were usually unhappy. (Laughter.)
But I have a question for Eric. This is an interesting political question. As many of you know, one of the sharper criticisms of Leon Kass’s council was that it did not take up questions of health policy and the whole problem of the uninsured. Now, interestingly enough, neither did NBAC take those up, but nobody dumped on them for not taking it up. But I was told that NBAC was told – instructed not to take up those issues, which if true was a gratuitously political command.

Eric Meslin answered that he never received any commands not to take up any issues, but he did relate an incident when he and NBAC Commissioner Jim Childress were told by National Institute of Health officials that the NIH was “concerned” that the NBAC would propose regulations that would slow research.

It wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t – it was, we were invited to dinner – box lunch. (Laughter.) I wasn’t very hungry at the end of it.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe that there was much room for dissenters among the members of Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Who on the NBAC could be compared to Gazzaniga or Blackburn in the President’s Bioethics Council?

And I didn’t notice any objection to Alta Charo’s politicization of her luncheon talk, using terms like “endarkenment” and personally attacking Wesley Smith, who was in the audience at that July 06 “Bioethics and Politics” conference in Albany.

About bnuckols

Conservative Christian Family Doctor, promoting conservative news and views. (Hot Air under the right wing!)


One thought on “Bioethics is biopolitics

  1. >i appreciate the interest in my paper. e-mail me at and i'll forward a copy of the paper to which Kathryn refers. i'd be pleased to dialogue further on these issues . . .-josh perry

    Posted by josh perry | July 24, 2007, 2:38 pm

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