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  • "Who Lost China?"A Foreshadowing of Today's Ideological Disputes in Bioethics
  • Arthur Caplan (bio)

Throughout the early 1950s, as the Korean War raged, a single contentious question consumed political debate in the United States: Who lost China? Political opponents tossed this question back and forth hoping that the tar baby would stick to someone on the other side and let them affix blame both for the Korean War and, more importantly, for allowing communists to seize control of the most populous nation on earth.

The debate over who lost China was the opening gambit in what became an ongoing and notably nasty fight about what course U.S. foreign policy should follow vis-à-vis communist China, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union's satellite states. It deeply divided the scholars who studied China, communism, Korea, and foreign policy and has kept them divided right down to the present day. As the controversy evolved, some predicted it would be the death knell for the objective, academic study of foreign policy. They thought the gentlemanly norms that had guided work in foreign affairs prior to the Korean conflict could not stand the political heat generated by the fight over China.

Bioethics is currently in the midst of its own "who lost China" contretemps. The bioethics battle is not about who to blame for allowing a group of fanatical ideologues to come to dominate a populous state. It is, rather, a debate about what role ideology and religion ought to play in determining the policies and practices of biomedicine in the world's most powerful state. But the fight is indicative of something else that many in bioethics and outside the field are loathe to admit—that bioethics is a field and that it has matured into a position of power in American society.

On one side is an alliance of neoconservative and religiously oriented bioethicists. They are wary of where biomedicine and biotechnology are taking us. They speak in terms that are religious or quasi-religious. They have established their own journals, think tanks, and training programs. They operate in the corridors of power both in the White House and in Congress. They are at ease with the Republican party. They are backed by the deep pockets of very conservative foundations and wealthy philanthropists. They have no hesitance in saying that they operate as bioethicists.

On the other side stand a loose amalgam of left-liberal bioethicists tenuously allied with a far smaller number of more libertarian bioethicists. This group is, on the whole, more at ease with the Democratic party. They are also more at ease with science and technology then their conservative counterparts. While not always in love with every thought, proposal, experiment, or initiative emanating from the world of bioscience and technology, they have no inherent fear or loathing of a scientific worldview. Indeed, they place their bets for a better tomorrow on scientific and technological progress. They speak primarily in secular terms drawn more from philosophy or the law. Explicitly religious arguments get them nervous. They tend to dominate academia and the major bioethics programs located there. They have their own journals, blogs, and training programs. They don't have special access to left-wing foundations and philanthropists, but government, a few old-line foundations, and some corporations fund their work. They are a bit more nervous about admitting to being bioethicists in public places despite the fact that their history is far longer than that of their conservative counterparts.

As was true of the fifty-year-old battles over who let China go communist, both sides in the current bioethics culture war deny that they are to blame for any excesses when it comes to disagreements. They will usually allege abiding respect for the other side while maneuvering as best they can behind the scenes with a well-placed phone call or a strategically timed op-ed to weaken or impugn their opponents. In one sense, the evidence that politicization has taken hold in bioethics is everywhere. In another sense, it is hard to get anyone to come forward and admit that this is so.

The divisions have been on display since the formation of...


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pp. 12-13
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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