Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Not Just for Experts: The Public Debate about Reprogenetics in Germany

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Not Just for Experts: The Public Debate about Reprogenetics in Germany

Article excerpt

Over the past thirty years, national ethics committees, ethical advisory boards, and similar bodies have proliferated throughout the Western world. While these bodies may be quite different from each other, they are all expected to bring ethics to the arena of politics. "Ethics" here is not about the virtues of the statesperson or distributive justice and the welfare state, as has been the case when ethics and politics have intersected in the past. It is about how a nation-state should handle developments in science and technology, specifically in biology and medicine. As ethics has come to politics in this new way, we have seen a new type of expert providing political counselling: experts for questions of ethics.

There is no unanimous agreement on how to assess this linkage between public policy and ethics, however. Some hope it will lead to more responsible and more rational decisions. Others have strong reservations about what they see as a "politicization of expertise," even the emergence of a new, undemocratic "Expertokratie"--rule by experts.

At the heart of these controversies lie different notions of both the proper meaning of "ethics" and what role "ethics" should play in public policy. I hope to show this by telling the story of what is referred to in Germany as "the bioethics debate"--a huge public debate on biomedicine, particularly on reproductive medicine and stem cell research, in 2000 and 2001. (1) The story makes clear that in the context of biomedicine, people may mean different things when they argue that policies should be informed by ethical considerations. In such controversies, not only values or principles, but also the very meaning of "ethics" and its proper role in politics are at stake.

The bioethical policy debate in Germany differs in many respects from its U.S. counterpart. In the United States, bioethical policy controversies are perceived as being structured along a line between conservative techno-skeptics on the one hand, who refer to traditional values and the Christian belief system, and liberal techno-optimists on the other, who promote a secular, individualist, rights-based approach, including the right to abortion. This division of views, however, does not describe the German debate. Looking at the issue from the German perspective might help ease the polarization between conservative and liberal views in the United States.

Techno-Skeptics and Techno-Optimists

As in many other Western societies, we find two conflicting "camps" within the bioethics debate in Germany: a techno-optimistic camp and a techno-skeptical one. This split does not coincide with a liberal-conservative or left-right divide; it runs across party lines and across the left-right division. What characterizes the two camps, rather, is that they promote different interpretations of the problem at stake and different ideas about how to handle it. Concerning the latter, they have advocated different modes of linking politics and ethics.

Techno-optimists do not necessarily approve of any new technology, but they emphasize technology's potential benefits, welcome the enhancement of choice, and believe that society is able, in principle, to calculate and to control potential risks. Since they regard rejecting potential benefits and limiting choice as irrational--as a stance that can be credited to religious or ideological emotions or beliefs--the conflict over biomedicine is often interpreted as a battle between rationality and knowledge on the one hand and ignorance, emotionality, and moral fundamentalism on the other--in short, as a battle between modernity and antimodernity.

Techno-optimists in Germany promote the idea that, given a modern, secular, pluralistic society, ethics is a matter of choice--a good choice if it balances competing values. The task of ethics is basically to structure and clarify--to rationalize--the process of selecting and balancing diverging values. …

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