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  • What Happens When Politics Discovers Bioethics?
  • Jeffrey P. Kahn (bio)

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.

This isn't meant to be a call to ignore the political issues of the day and hide behind our desks. The mingling of bioethics and politics is here to stay, and bioethics and bioethicists can and ought to play a role in pressing societal issues. But unlike other academics who can easily distinguish their research from their advocacy roles, our academic work in bioethics is more difficult to distinguish from our political activism.

What are our options? At the very least we need to engage the issues raised by the increasing politicization and polarization of our field. Ruth Macklin speaks to this when she makes the case for a return to reasoned debate.4 That high ground still seems worth defending—bioethics as scholarship should be able to coexist with bioethics as politics without being subsumed under it. One way to assure this outcome is to treat the two as distinct areas, much as political science is distinct from political consulting. Bioethics scholars should feel free to engage in political bioethics, of course, but it should be clear when they are "doing" politics versus scholarship. It is difficult to imagine a more important time for political advocacy, but confusing advocacy with scholarly efforts serves to undermine both.

There are many examples of the purported politicization of science in policy-making: in climate studies, science education and evolution, the contraceptive approval process, and the like. These are...


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Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2012
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