Stuck in the Middle

By Smith, David H. | The Hastings Center Report, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

Stuck in the Middle


Smith, David H., The Hastings Center Report


I have always been embarrassed at being boringly centrist. On my bad days I have felt lacking in testosterone or intestinal fortitude. Many of my closest professional friends seem clearer in their minds than I feel. I pretend I'm Leon Kass, former chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, when I teach Jim Childress, a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia and thoughtful defender of autonomy and respect for persons--and vice versa. I want to have it not just both ways, but all ways. This is not a comfortable position. Judith Berling, an old friend and scholar of Chinese religion, grew up in Iowa. She used to say that she had one foot in Tokyo and the other in Dubuque--and that it was a reach, and left her vulnerable. So it is, and it's a vulnerability to which I can relate.

To give myself a little credit, I know some of the reasons I take refuge in the middle. One is the unfortunate demonizing and labeling that goes on in the politically crisper factions. For example, Kass's "The Wisdom of Repugnance," an essay on cloning published in The New Republic a few years before he took the helm of the President's Council, is often characterized as if it were a simple appeal to gut feeling, when even a casual reading will show it is not. One may disagree with the substance of Kass's arguments, but they should be taken on in the good faith in which they were advanced. Similarly, critics of thinkers such as Childress who defend nuanced views about the importance and role of autonomy or respect for persons in setting bioethics policy often ignore the nuance, and write as if their foes stood for a disconnected and unencumbered ideal of the self. The result is a caricature of a position that may, in fact, not take our inter-dependencies with sufficient seriousness, but that nevertheless is scarcely tone deaf to the social nature of human life.

Something parallel happens with reference to religion. I am a traditionally religious man, a weekly churchgoer, and have tried to integrate that commitment into my work. Thus I find it painful when religious arguments or theological perspectives are dismissed out of hand, systematically excluded from policy debates, even when the rationale for that dismissal is expressed with the intelligence and conviction of Ronald M. Green, who argues that religious persons must "avoid appeal to religiously defined goals or other values that are not widely shared." (1) My own views (and tradition) largely accord with Green's, but I would not exclude the voice of an Orthodox rabbi. On the other hand, the sociologist John Evans's argument that bioethics as a field has systematically excluded religion is too sweeping. The fact that religion has not been treated as politically decisive does not prove that it has been excluded altogether. I may participate in an argument even if I don't win. We need much more serious discussion about the mechanisms for setting public policy about bioethics, but that debate could well begin with some caveats: that religion need not lead to political dogmatism, and that no religious card should be trump. In the United States religion is an important part of the discussion, but only a part.

One subject on which the crisp views are at loggerheads is the question of the status and use of human embryos. The claims are familiar: from the moment of conception or existence of the diploid nucleus the embryo has the moral status of the writer and reader of this prose. Or, the earliest embryo is simply a resource for advancement of the human prospect, and quibbles about its creation or preservation reflect ignorance of embryology and perhaps superstition. The clash results in argument conducted as war, reminding me of the apocryphal story of the minister preaching in a small church with the windows open: A spring breeze refreshes the room, blowing notes off the pulpit. Someone sitting in the first pew picks them up to see that the minister had written in the margin, "Weak point, yell like hell. …

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