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Right and Wrong

Neither biology nor bioethics can claim to know the absolute truth.

Eric Greenberg

Few today can ignore bioethics. Innovations in the life sciences and health care have meant that bioethical criteria are increasingly applied to hitherto personal decisions of life and death, pain and suffering, privacy and public accountability. Bioethicists say they can help us make these decisions, and perhaps they can. But more and more, as public policy wrestles with new biological technologies, bioethicists claim the right to guide government in regulating the decisions we are permitted to make.

This expansion must be checked.

What are bioethicists? Lately, they have fallen into two camps. The first comprises sponsored academics or policy wonks at think tanks. The second is made up of intellectuals whose studies help individuals and policy makers think about the difficult issues with which bioethics is concerned. The former are subsidized by special interest groups; they use their influence to bully those with whom they do not agree. The latter are serious and independent scholars; they hope for a rounded, vigorous debate, and they admit that a degree of uncertainty clings to their conclusions.

Biological science and, by extension, health care are not concerned with absolute truth. Both are based on observation and practice. Their conclusions are tentative. As such, they never achieve perfection or completion.

Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D., the presidentís hand-picked bioethicist, is a tenured professor at the conservative University of Chicago; he enjoys an endowed chair funded by like-minded individuals. Over the years, he has developed a deeply pessimistic ethics founded on a moral system and theology that is not endorsed by most people in our country. Famously, he initially opposed in vitro fertilization (IVF) because, he said, it was “selective murder.” When otherwise infertile heterosexual couples made the technology common-place, he changed his stance, allowing that “stable,” conventional families should have the right to use the technique for conception; in every other case, he says, IVF remains immoral. But what is the definition of stable, and who defines it? I shudder at the thought. That a person with such views is making bioethical policy in the United States is absurd.

Thomas Jefferson was fond of saying that by relinquishing decision making to others, you become dependent on other people and lose the ability to make decisions at all. This country was built on the Jeffersonian principle that people can be trusted, and on a system of checks and balances. Today we see political extremists (on both the Left and the Right) with substantial political and financial backing inflicting their ethics on others.

As citizens with an interest in the biological sciences and health care, we must educate our policymakers—and not permit Dr. Kass and his compeers to hijack the legislation of bioethical policy. It is important: our policy makers will legislate us into affluence or poverty, life or death, sickness or health. They need to appreciate the variety of beliefs in the United States. They must understand the implications of their actions on ordinary Americans. Finally, they must abandon their charade of a “moral clarity” brought to you by Dr. Kass. Remember Copernicus.

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