Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Offensive-Defensive Distinction in Military Biological Research

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Offensive-Defensive Distinction in Military Biological Research

Article excerpt

Should medical researchers not participate in military biological research? The argument for "no participation " falsely assumes there is no practical and moral distinction between offensive and defensive military biological research.

In April 1989, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command published the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that allowed the Biological Defense Research Program (BDRP) to continue. This document states that the purpose of the BDRP is to maintain and promote national defense with respect to potential biological wayfare threats.

The major objectives of the BDRP are to develop measures for detection, treatment, protection from, and decontamination of potential biological warfare agents; and development of medical defenses, prophylactic vaccines and drugs, therapeutic measures, and management of protocols. The impact statement holds that, in addition to promoting the national defense through improvements in diagnostic methods and drug therapies, such a program would benefit the scientific community in general.

Though supposedly dealing only with environmental concerns of the BDRP, the FEIS has created the opportunity for organizations and individuals to voice their opposition to the entire biological defense program. The document opens the way for arguments such as those raised by Jonathan King, Charles Pillar, or Barbara Hatch Rosenberg that the BDRP could foster the development of offensive weapons or encourage other nations to do so, thus spawning a biological weapons race. (1) This opposition stems from serious concerns about rDNA technology and genetically engineered microorganisms that have driven many biomedical scientists to refuse to participate in Pentagon-sponsored medical research. (2) Some researchers are even signing pledges not to engage knowingly in research they believe will further the development of biological agents. (3) (see p. 21)

I want to consider here what I will call the "no participation" argument, of which the Committee for Responsible Genetics (and Jonathan King as their spokesman) are perhaps the principle proponents. (4) Behind this argument is an assumption that no real distinction exists between offensive and defensive biological research. If this claim is true, then we must ask whether people who conduct this research for the military establishment face a healing-killing moral conflict. Further, if such a conflict exists, are researchers morally obligated to stop conducting military medical research to conform to the traditional moral standard of the healing professions? I think the assumption of the "no participation" argument is false, though ensuring we do only defensive biological research is a moral imperative. Research Gains, Moral Questions

The "no participation" argument presents several problems. Superficially, it posits "nonparticipation" as the way to dissociate oneself from evil. This eliminates working within the system to generate reform, whistle-blowing on violations of agreements prohibiting offensive weapons developments, or developing experimental pathways that ensure biomedical scientists do not cross the line between offensive and defensive research.

Moreover, complete dissociation from military biological research programs risks losing benevolent gains in vaccine development and drug therapies. American soldiers, who may be deployed worldwide, face a real threat from naturally occurring endemic diseases.

In Europe, in the fall of 1944 during the Lorraine campaign American forces suffered the loss of 46,000 troops-the equivalent of three infantry divisions-to disease and nonbattle injury. (5) In Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969, disease accounted for every four of six hospitalizations (battle and nonbattle injury accounting for the other two). In fact, disease was the single greatest cause of morbidity during our involvement in the Vietnam War. (6)

The medical situation in Vietnam could have been much worse if not for the efforts of military biological research and development. …

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