Let's play a game. Take a minute to guess the background political ideologies behind each of the quotes below dealing with the ethical implications of new biotechnologies:
(1) "The technologies are going to be accessible to affluent couples and would be used in ways that could increase inequality. The last thing we need now is a genetic elite."
(2) "Practically speaking, cloning is the opening wedge for a series of technologies that ultimately lead to designer babies. If cloning is allowed now, it will be harder to oppose germ-line engineering to enhance babies in the future."
(3) "Cloning represents a very clear, powerful, and immediate example in which we are in danger of turning procreation into manufacture."
(4) "Cloning of a human being is intuitively and properly viewed with almost uniform horror, because replication of a human by cloning would radically alter the very definition of what a human being is."
(5) "The single most portentous technological threshold in all of human history is close upon us: the ability of humans to deliberately modify the genes that get passed to our children."
(6) "Genetic engineering to create designer babies is the ultimate expression of the hubris that marks the loss of reverence for life as a gift."
(7) "The new biological technologies require the application of one of more important lessons of the environmental movement; the imperative to treat with caution power new technologies that may cause significant harm."
(8) "Given the enormous importance of what is at stake, we believe that the so-called 'precautionary principle' should be our guide in this arena. This principle would suggest that scientists, technologists, indeed, all of us should be modest in claiming to understand the many possible consequences of any profound alteration of human procreation."
While slight differences in emphasis and tone may give away the game in some cases, the central sentiment is astonishingly consistent. With regard to the bioethical issues I cherrypicked, it's hard to tell your prominent bioethical left-wingers from your right-wingers.
So who said what? The first statement is from Richard Hayes who is the executive director of the progressive Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California. The second is from Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future and generally considered a neoconservative. The third is from Leon Kass, former head of President George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics. The fourth is by George Annas, a left-wing law professor at Boston University. The fifth one is Hayes again. The sixth assertion is from Michael Sandel, a liberal political scientist from Harvard University. The seventh contention was made by Marcy Darnovsky, another fierce progressive from the Center for Genetics and Society, and the last one from Human Cloning and Human Dignity, a volume issued by Bush's Council on Bioethics.
This comparative exercise in bioethical pronunciamentos was provoked by the launch of the new book, Progress in Bioethics: Science, Policy, and Politics at a meeting at the Center for American Progress (CAP) last week. CAP is the Washington, D.C., think tank that has stocked the ranks of much of the Obama Administration. In choosing contributors to the volume, the editors—bioethicist Jonathan Moreno and former CAP researcher Sam Berger—are evidently attempting to promote a big tent progressive bioethics. Moreno and Berger intend that the volume display the wide varieties of "progressive" bioethics. The book is a challenge to the conservative/neoconservative bioethics that was ascendant in Washington, D.C., policy circles under the Bush Administration.
But a quick reading of the book suggests that the divide between some bioethical progressives and conservatives isn't particularly wide. With the notable exception of the abortion issue, the above list of quotations shows that there is considerable overlap between self-described conservatives and progressives when it comes to banning various proposed and actual biotechnological interventions. Both conservatives and progressives endorse the application of the so-called precautionary principle to bioethics. A profound attack on new technologies, the precautionary principle requires innovators to prove that their new technologies are totally safe before they are allowed to introduce them into the marketplace.
"Conservatives frequently default to reflexive opposition to new technologies, an opposition that is almost always overtaken by practical events," declare Moreno and Berger in their introductory chapter. But opposition to new technologies is nowadays also the default position of many ideological leftists. For example, a wide array of environmental groups wants to ban agricultural biotechnology and left-leaning advocacy groups want a moratorium on nanotechnology research and development.
The source of this progressive unease is their fear that the dynamic scientific and market competitive processes that engender and deploy new technologies will exacerbate social and economic inequalities. "It is not difficult to imagine biotechnological developments and social contexts that would help produce a world in which we have less and less commitment to one another as members of a single human community, in which the divide between the haves and have-nots increasingly and perhaps irreversibly deepens," argues Darnovsky in her chapter.
Remember the left/liberal panic over the "digital divide"? Rich educated white people and their children would have access to new information technologies that would give them a permanent head start over the poor minorities. While it is certainly true that the rich and educated generally gain access to new technologies first, markets quickly democratized technologies like computers and cellular phones.
Many self-described progressives oppose genetically enhanced crops, yet the pest and weed control technologies built into biotech varieties works just as well on small farms as they do for massive agribusiness. And resource-poor farmers are likely to see more dramatic improvements in yields than already well-off farmers.
The tension between progressive commitments to democracy and individual rights runs throughout Progress in Bioethics. In some cases, democracy trumps rights. Darnovsky, a proponent of the democratic approach, asks in her essay, "How can progressive biopolitics encourage democratic deliberation about and civil-society involvement in decisions about powerful new biotechnologies?" (Note: In this context, "civil-society" is the term for the special interest groups preferred by progressives.) As an answer to her own question, Darnovsky points to Canada's Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA). The AHRA was adopted in 2004 after a series of public meetings and hearings involving thousands of citizens. The process was also guided by a network of Canadian feminists.
Darnovsky is pleased that the democratic process that resulted in the AHRA prohibits "the creation of human embryos solely for research [to produce stem cells for tranplant], inheritable genetic modification and reproductive cloning, sex selection (except to prevent the birth of children with certain sex-linked conditions), and commercial surrogacy and gamete retrieval." None of these technologies have been comprehensively banned in the United States. After being careful to note that Fukuyama has "broken" with his fellow neoconservatives, although largely over the Iraq war, Darnovsky goes on to praise the neoconservative's proposal to establish a powerful federal biotechnology control agency that would regulate biotechnologies and treatments not only on the grounds of safety and efficacy, but on the basis of social values.
To their great credit, Moreno and Berger assert, "progressive bioethicists do not insist on one vision of the good life, or impose a single moral belief system on everyone. Rather, they protect and promote the ability of individuals to pursue their own ends, provided they do not impede the ability of others to do the same." By itself, this principle would ground a liberal, or even libertarian bioethics.
Of course, being on the political left, Moreno and Berger are fond of equality and want that to be part of progressive bioethical visions as well. Although having the government intervene extensively in reproductive and medical decisions is not the way I would go, their progressive commitment to equality could be met by the government supplying access to the benefits of new biotechnological treatments and enhancements to the poor. As dangerous as this is, it is much preferable to Darnovsky's technophobic version of progressive bioethics that bans new technologies in order to make sure that the rich and the poor remain equally diseased, disabled, and dead.
Bioethicist James Hughes, another contributor to Progress in Bioethics, is correct when he identifies Darnovsky, Hayes, Annas, and others as "leftwing bioconservatives," Ultimately, when it comes to bioethics some progressives have progressed so far across the ideological spectrum that they are, in policy terms, not much different from the neoconservatives and conservatives they affect to despise.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.