Concern over Bioethics May Forge New Allies

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Concern over Bioethics May Forge New Allies

Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter

For some time, the politics of bioethics in the West has fueled deep ideological polarization between a permissive left and a restrictive right. That was the dynamic when the front-burner issues were abortion and birth control, and it's still true of today's most agonizing debates such as embryonic stem cell research and end-of-life questions like those surrounding the Terry Schiavo case in Florida.

On every one of those issues, the knee-jerk response of the left is to let people make their own decisions, while that of the right is to defend life. This fault line forms the core of today's "culture wars."

The primary consequence for the Catholic church has been to drive it into an ever-tighter alliance with the political right, a trend clearly in evidence during the 2004 presidential election in the United States. This is notoriously frustrating for "seamless garment" Catholics, who insist that if you take into view the full range of the church's moral and social teaching, it cannot be subsumed into any secular ideological formation.

But what if we project forward 10 to 20 years, trying to anticipate what the front-line bioethical debates will be then? Looking at what's happening in the biological sciences, such questions may include cloning, life-extension treatments, the creation of transgenic entities such as chimeras, the use of genetic technology to "engineer" offspring with desirable intellectual and physical capacities, and the widespread use of genetically modified foods.

If that's the future, one surprising consequence is that today's ideological divisions may become much less clearcut, as opposition to the brave new world of biotechnology will stem as much from the left as the right.

This reality is already crystal clear in Europe, where the use of genetically modified foods has basically been stopped in its tracks--by the political left, not the right. The same phenomenon is in evidence in the Catholic church, where the most vehement opposition to GMOs has come from the bishops' conferences of the developing world, often in tandem with theologians and members of religious communities who would generally be considered "liberal" on most political matters.

Several Filipino bishops, for example, including Dinualdo Gutierrez of Marbel, have been outspoken in their criticism of GMOs. In 2002, 14 Brazilian bishops condemned the cultivation and consumption of GMOs, and in the same year the Catholic bishops of South Africa said, "It is morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food."

Across the range of other looming bioethical issues, something similar is afoot.

To be sure, there's also strong opposition to the biotech revolution from the right, including the emergence of a group of influential intellectuals dubbed "bio-conservatives," concerned that fundamental lines of human dignity are being blurred. Such figures include Leon Kass, former chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, and Francis Fukuyama, who has warned that developments in biotechnology threaten to "alter human nature and thereby move us into a 'post-human' stage of history." Mr. Fukuyama too sits on the President's Council on Bioethics, which, under President George W. Bush, has been something of a forum for bio-conservative thought, often with a strong Catholic flavor.

Yet some of the most ferocious criticism of today's developments comes from figures more associated with the cultural left.

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