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  • The New Conservatives in Bioethics:Who Are They and What Do They Seek?
  • Ruth Macklin (bio)

A new political movement has arisen in bioethics, self-consciously distingushed from the rest of the field and characterized by a new way of writing and arguing. Unfortunately, that new method is mean-spirited, mystical, and emotional. It claims insight into ultimate truth yet disavows reason.

The ever-changing landscape of bioethics has a new feature: a "conservative" movement, whose spokespersons attack what they see as the liberal cast of "mainstream bioethics,"1 a field that, since its inception, has mainly comprised academic scholars. Journalists have often weighed in on a variety of topics in bioethics, and governmental commissions have issued reports on everything from research involving prisoners to termination of life-sustaining treatment to embryonic stem cell research.2 What has emerged recently, however, has taken the form of a discernible political movement, with a newly established journal, The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, and a new group of commentators who were until recently mostly unknown to bioethicists, or at least not typically thought of as bioethicists. (The scope of The New Atlantis is actually new technology in general, but the journal has so far served primarily to criticize bioethics as practiced by so-called liberals.)

This article discusses the new conservative movement in bioethics and seeks to identify who the conservatives are and what characterizes their position. I contend that it is not only the substantive views of these conservatives that distinguish them from contributors to mainstream bioethics; it is also some features of their writings that mark a departure from the way bioethicists have typically engaged in debates. These new contributors to the field have applied the label "conservative" to themselves as they mount a critique of the assumedly "liberal" tradition of mainstream bioethics. Yet I question whether these labels are meaningful, or at least consistent.

There have always been contributors to bioethics on both sides (in some cases, multiple sides) of many of the same issues discussed today: abortion, euthanasia (now reconceptualized as physician-assisted suicide), appropriate uses of medical technology, new reproductive technologies and practices, genetic manipulation. But until recently, authors did not self-identify as liberals or conservatives, nor were they, with rare exceptions, labeled as such by their opponents in specific debates or controversies.

What has led to the introduction into bioethics of labels once reserved for a stance on political issues? A possible explanation is that the most conservative wing of the Republican party in American politics, now dominating both the executive and legislative [End Page 34] branches of government, is obsessed with matters related to procreation, prenatal life, and extracorporeal embryos, and has put those issues high on their political and legislative agenda. Some academics, but also journalists and other public intellectuals who find common cause with political conservatives on these issues, are dissatisfied with what they see as the approach of mainstream bioethics. Once the label "conservative" is adopted by those who are critical of "permissive" positions on procreation and the status of embryos, bioethicists who take an opposing view are virtually by default labeled "liberals." But to apply that label to everyone in bioethics who does not explicitly identify with the conservative movement is misleading, at best. To characterize mainstream bioethics as "liberal" is to lump together—uncritically and irresponsibly—an array of widely divergent and often nuanced positions. Even the question of what constitutes a conservative position in bioethics has received different answers.

Who Are the Liberals and Conservatives in Bioethics?

Back in 1973, when Daniel Callahan began his three-decade critique of runaway science and technology, arguing for the need for limits in the use of technology,3 he did not identify himself as a "conservative" or label the position he criticized as "liberal." Today, the conservative bioethicists could consider Callahan one of them, as he has opposed the use of embryos in research, is critical of developing life-extending technologies, and has questioned the reigning paradigm of autonomy in bioethics. Yet Callahan's views on social justice in health care and the breadth of his writings in the field make it impossible to shoehorn him into a...