The 2005 culmination of the legal battle over Terri Schiavo’s life-sustaining treatment was as a flash point for public discussions about bioethics. While the field encompasses a wide range of complex and controversial subjects, debates over these issues often remain within the realms of academia, the scientific community, and the health professions. But in 2005, conservative political leaders insisted upon using the tragic situation of Schiavo and her family to push a right-wing agenda for end-of-life care decisions. They captured an enormous amount of media attention and made headlines around the county.
But in the current economic downturn, the primary bioethical issue on newspaper front pages is health care reform. Bioethics issues like end-of-life care, cloning, and other “culture war” matters are on the back burner. But at a Center for American Progress event yesterday on “Progress in Bioethics,” Michael Tomansky, panelist and editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, argued that once the economy improves and is no longer taking up all of the nation’s “anxiety oxygen,” Americans will “have to find other things to argue about.” And those other things are likely to include bioethics. The rest of the panel generally agreed: Something—perhaps a decision from the Obama administration, a court ruling, or a controversial clinical case like Schiavo’s—will eventually capture the media’s eye and bring debates over bioethics and public policy back to fore. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when,” Tomansky argued, and progressives need to be ready.
The event highlighted the release of Progress in Bioethics, a new book co-edited by CAP Senior Fellow Jonathan Moreno and Sam Berger. The volume maps the current landscape of bioethics and public policy, where progressive ideas are ascendant after more than a decade of conservative dominance. As a panelist, Berger explained that “progressive bioethics” is best understood as the application of the scientific method to policymaking, emphasizing data-driven decision making and transparent methodologies. He also outlined the four central values of a progressive bioethics.
The first is “critical optimism,” which Berger explained means that while progressives tend to view change as a positive thing, their support for innovation and the advent of new technologies must come with a dose of skepticism and an awareness of potential problems. The key to safeguarding against potential harms lies in careful policymaking.
The second principle is “human dignity.” Berger said that while this important, resonant phrase has been co-opted by conservative bioethicists in recent years, progressives should not cede the term to the right. Instead, they should work to redefine it for the public to indicate the respect we afford to moral equals in our society.
“Moral transparency” was the next value Berger explained. The role of bioethicists is not to dictate morality to the public, he said. Instead, the purpose of public debate over bioethics is to inform citizens about the complexities and nuances involved in these issues, and to in turn better inform citizens about how we can formulate policies that reflect cultural values.
Finally, he explained what he called “ethical practicality.” Not all issues in bioethics get equal attention from the mainstream media. Often, it is those issues that are most pressing, such as access to quality health care, vaccinations, and adequate nutrition—particularly on the global scale—that remain on the sidelines of media’s attention. However, because of their importance and immediacy, these issues must remain a primary focus of progressive bioethics.
While progressives have historically dominated academic bioethics, said panelist Clay Risen, managing editor of Democracy, that there has been a lack of substantive, contemplative articles from the left intended for mainstream audiences. Changing that has been one of the goals of the publication, he said.
In contrast, the past decade has been a period of great success for right-wing bioethics. Conservative dominance, Berger argued, is not simply attributable to the political power wielded under the Bush administration, which gave prominence to the bio-conservative philosophical positions of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Panelist Kathryn Hinsch, Founder and Board President of the Women’s Bioethics Project and a contributor to Progress in Bioethics, said that in recent years conservatives have gained considerable ground in framing many of the public debates within bioethics. A major success has been to define the vocabulary of debates with phrases like “designer babies” and “death panels.” Moreover, Tomasky said, conservatives project their ideas with clarity and have a passionate, unified position that appeals to both the religious and secular right.
What progressives need to do, Hinsch argued, is to present to the public an “alternate world view” that contrasts with the conservative position. In agreement, Risen argued that the left’s frequent absence from the public debate has resulted in the mischaracterization of the progressive position as merely being the opposite of the right’s stance. The assumption is then that the left holds a libertarian, “no holds barred” approach to bioethics issues, particularly when it comes to the use of emerging biomedical technologies.
But by no means do progressive approaches to bioethics necessarily align with libertarian principles, said Marcy Darnovsky, the Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, also contributor to Progress in Bioethics. Instead, she said that progressives ought to move forward with a careful eye towards how to best balance considerations of the common good with individual liberty. A clearly articulated precautionary principle must keep enthusiasm for emerging biomedical technologies in check, she said, echoing Progress in Bioethics’s call for to proceed with “critical optimism.”
Sam Berger, JD Candidate, Yale Law School; Co-Editor, Progress in Bioethics
Michael Tomasky, Editor, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
Clay Risen, Managing Editor, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
Kathryn Hinsch, Founder and Board President, Women’s Bioethics Project; Contributor Progress in Bioethics
Marcy Darnovsky, Associate Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society; Contributor Progress in Bioethics
Jonathan Moreno, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Editor-In-Chief, Science Progress, Co-Editor, Progress in Bioethics