What Happens When Politics Discovers Bioethics?

By Kahn, Jeffrey P. | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview

What Happens When Politics Discovers Bioethics?


Kahn, Jeffrey P., The Hastings Center Report


Bioethics has always been involved in policy issues and the politics surrounding them, and no doubt many of us were attracted to the field in part because of its role in realpolitik and its ability to make a difference in the policy issues of the day. I was. But I sense bioethics faces a field-changing moment--or even that this moment has already passed without our attending to it. Many of the policy debates in which bioethics participated were about sometimes esoteric biomedical conundrums--long on policy but light on politics. We now find ourselves in the midst of heated political debates.

Our participation in politics has changed the tenor and quality of our input, and we shouldn't allow these changes to go unexamined. Take any number of recent examples--from the Terri Schiavo case to human embryonic stem cell research--that place bioethics squarely in the middle of the Culture Wars. What should be the role of bioethics in these pitched battles?

Art Caplan has written in this space that bioethics' maturation as a field has brought recognition, and that it is time we admitted that with recognition comes power and with power comes politics. (1) Part of the reason that bioethics came to have any power and influence, however, was its reputation for clearheaded analysis. Will we continue to matter in the same way if what we do is equated with politics?

Alta Charo is right that we would be better off acknowledging politics rather than hiding from it. (2) But for some scholars working in bioethics, the rough and tumble of political debate has limited attraction and clear pitfalls. Many of us work in academic environments that may applaud but do not obviously reward this sort of public engagement. No matter how nuanced we may think our viewpoints and arguments, they rarely come across that way in public debate. The shades of gray we have been taught (and teach others) to see get distilled into the black and white opinions demanded by the media, and this lack of nuance undermines our scholarly reputations. Once we take a position and begin to advocate on behalf of a specific issue, we risk becoming partisans at the price of our credibility in other areas.

This is where the real costs to the field may lie. Instead of judging work in bioethics for the quality of its reasoning and arguments, the inclination will be to search for political commitments and leanings, and the sleights of hand and spin-doctoring that must surely follow. While the moral expertise of bioethicists may well be overstated even under the best circumstances, (3) real or perceived political bias can only increase skepticism about what we do. …

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