Bioethics and Culture Wars

By Callahan, Daniel | The Nation, April 14, 1997 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Bioethics and Culture Wars

Callahan, Daniel, The Nation

Not long ago two stories appeared in the paper on the same day, both greeted with enormous media fanfare and instant argument. One of them was on the successful cloning of a sheep, Dolly. The other story was about the confession of Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, that he had lied about the frequency of late-term abortions. Those abortions are, he said performed far more frequently than he and his colleagues had earlier admitted and performed as well on healthy fetuses, not only those that are malformed or whose mothers are dying.

Both stories raise complex and troubling ethical issues. As a worker in the field of bioethics, I had an uneasy sense that, once again, these questions would quickly get overlaid with ideology and swept up in the culture wars. Indeed the argument about Dolly saw two camps instantly formed one was alarmed by the development and opposed to any further movement toward cloning humans; the other (seemingly much smaller) touted a potential gain in health and more reproductive choice if cloning went forward. The Fitzsimmons case elicited a we-told-you-so response from antiabortion groups and an embarrassed effort among pro-choice groups to distance themselves from Fitzsimmons.

Good ethical analysis in my trade is supposed to be tightly logical, utterly consistent, dispassionate, evenhanded and universal in its application. Whether the ethics is Kantian in its orientation--looking for tight rules and unyielding rights or utilitarian--looking at consequences and a maximization of benefit over burden (so called consequentialism)--the ultimate goal is the same: to provide a rational and compelling way of telling good from bad, right from wrong. While feminism, contextualism and a resurgent pragmatism a la Richard Rorty have sought to open some new doors, the old models still hold general sway.

They just don't work well with the Dolly and Fitzsimmons cases, though cloning seems to invite a consequentialist analysis. In asking whether human cloning would be a good thing, we should surely try to envision the likely results, using as a test, for instance, those utilitarian warhorses "the greatest good of the greatest number" or the balance of potential pleasure over pain. But that's not much help--we have cultural disagreement, as we should, over what "good," much less "greatest good," means, and what would count as an appropriate calculus for balancing pleasure and pain.

If one tried to use a Kantian standard in the Fitzsimmons case, his lying would have to be condemned. Kant admitted few, if any, exceptions to the duty to tell the truth. But in our society, lying in the name of a supposedly higher good is widely winked at if the cause is noble enough. Spin-doctoring only adds to the confusion. I would be astonished to learn that Fitzsimmons's co-advocates had been privately condemning him for lying.

All of this poses some puzzles not widely acknowledged in contemporary philosophical ethics or bioethics. If one tries to hold on to a universalist, coolly rational mode of analysis, floating above culture and class, no room is left for the play of passion, context and ideology. Lofty abstractions win the day. If, in contrast, one tries to recognize situation and circumstance, the result may be subservience to the interests of class and tribe, to our crowd and the passions of the moment.

Can bioethics find a better way? So far it hasn't, even if we have done reasonably well in remaining civilized with one another. As a field, it was born in the late sixties and early seventies, a response to a number of terrible abuses in medical research (the Tuskegee experiments, for instance) as well as a reaction to a suffocating medical paternalism (doctors, not patients, making all decisions). It answered the need for some strategies to evaluate the meaning of the new medical knowledge and technology, especially genetic engineering.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Bioethics and Culture Wars


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?