Social Movements and the Transformation of American Health Care

By Jane C. Banaszak-Holl; Sandra R. Levitsky et al. | Go to book overview

10
The “Hostile Takeover” of Bioethics by
Religious Conservatives and the Counter
Offensive

Renee R. Anspach

How, why, and with what effects does a social movement lay claim to an issue or field? What happens when social movements compete for control over social problems and professional jurisdictions? These questions are the focal points of this paper, and I will begin to answer them, using the controversy over Terri Schiavo’s fate as an illustrative case. In many ways, the Schiavo case was a defining moment in the history of bioethics. Never before had a family dispute over a life-and-death decision assumed the proportions of a public controversy of this magnitude, reverberating in the halls of Congress, the White House, and the Vatican. The Schiavo controversy was also a defining moment in the history of the pro-life movement, a coalition of conservative Catholics, Protestant fundamentalists, and evangelicals most widely known for its opposition to abortion. With the Schiavo case, its first large-scale mobilization around an adult patient, the pro-life movement pursued a broader agenda that now included end-of-life decisions.1

At stake in the Schiavo case, however, was a very different conflict over what the field of bioethics was to become and who could call themselves “bioethicists.” Over the past three decades, a heterogeneous interdisciplinary group called “bioethicists,” based in hospitals and research centers, had come to occupy the role of experts on ethics, some serving on advisory commissions or as pundits quoted in the press. For mainstream bioethicists, who saw themselves as the experts on ethics, it came as a surprise—and not a pleasant one at that—to find a new group of “conservative” or “Christian bioethicists,” quoted as “bioethicists” in the popular press. Some mainstream bioethicists viewed this development as an unwelcome, “hostile takeover.” This metaphor is, however, somewhat overdrawn, since mainstream bioethics continues to thrive and has not actually been taken over at all. But it does capture the way

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