Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Bioethicist's Predicament

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Bioethicist's Predicament

Article excerpt

Life at a "think-tank" perched atop a bluff on the eastern bank of the Hudson River looking across to West Point and Storm King Mountain: a life of pastoral solemnity and leisurely reflection on the human condition, right? Not entirely.

I write these notes in mid-March. Consider March thus far: It began at Gatwick Airport in London, on my way to a symposium on stem cells and nuclear transfer. Many of the world's leading researchers on these subjects were there, including Ian Wilmut, the scientist credited with cloning Dolly the sheep. I was the meeting's only ethics scholar. Cynthia refers to me as the "token" ethicist at such gatherings. Since token connotes "pro forma," I'd prefer a different label; "lone" ethicist perhaps (sans silver bullet) or, more to the point, besieged ethicist.

The siege commenced that very evening. Why, the scientists demanded, had the President's Council on Bioethics exchanged two moderate members for three conservatives? Why, in particular, had Liz Blackburn, a distinguished scientist, been removed? I had come to the symposium to learn about the state of the science of stem cell research. The vigorous give-and-take underscored the dangers of cherry-picking a handful of studies you'd like to believe while ignoring the complex, accumulating evidence that does not support your settled views. One of the first lessons I learned at The Hastings Center was that good ethics begins with good facts. The facts don't dictate the ethics, but neither may they be misrepresented to fit one's preferred moral conclusions. This is what the council, which has veered from specific policy recommendations to producing a reader on "Being Human," was accused of doing. …

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