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The Politicization of Bioethics

July 16th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The NY Times reported last Wednesday that three former Surgeon Generals had felt pressure from their respective administrations to suppress stories for political reasons. The story was a precursor to the Senate confirmation hearings of Dr. James W. Holsinger, Jr., who is already under the gun for thinking homosexuality is--as the NY Times puts it--"unnatural and unhealthy."

It's tempting to see some element of design in the hearings: by raising fears that the office of Surgeon General--a constitutionally questionable position, it seems--is simply a patsy to the President, Democrats significantly increased the likelihood that Dr. Holsinger would be confirmed.

If true, it would be bitterly ironic, if not unsurprising. Everyone, as William Saletan points out in this excellent essay, plays politics when it comes to bioethics. One side simply can't afford not to.

The danger, though, is that the politicization of science will ultimately undercut its own foundations. When the truth becomes subservient to power, it cannot survive long. And agenda science is no less likely than agenda journalism, with accusations coming fast on both sides of compromise, repression, and manipulation of data.

What is missing, of course, is the sort of restraint about which I wrote earlier. As Saletan writes,

I don't like this gamesmanship. I don't even like the idea of taking a general position on biotechnology. The field is just too big and complicated to fit an ideology. In science, things change much more radically than in politics. One month, we're screening embryos for diseases, and everybody's happy. The next month, we're screening embryos for their suitability as tissue donors, and everybody's queasy. One year, ethanol is a corn product and makes no sense. The next year, it's a switchgrass product and makes a lot of sense. I like having the freedom to soak my head in a new topic and come out saying the opposite of what I expected. Committing to a political identity would just get in the way.Then what makes me think I'm still a liberal? I guess it's a stubborn belief that liberalism isn't whatever dogmas currently possess this or that lefty camp. Liberalism is an admission of uncertainty. It's open to self-correction and to the complexity and unpredictability of life. Many ethicists and other self-described liberals don't fit or accept that definition. But I do.

The politicization of bioethics is an unfortunate reality, as in many areas the data politicians operate on are far more tendentious than the location of the earth in the solar system. Yet it is a reality that unfortunately will not go away anytime soon.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.