AHB 101:  BIOETHICS

Science-entrepreneurs seeking financial backing for their research must demonstrate that their projects are "ethical."  They can help make their case by turning to "bioethicists" for a "stamp of approval."  Bioethicists are members of a profession that examines the ethical aspects of biotechnologies e.g. organ transplantation, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, etc. Bioethical decisions are made at "elite" levels and most people are unaware that they are occurring.

Originally, those who pioneered bioethics into becoming a social institution strove to maintain independence.  Recognizing that they had a role to play in safeguarding public interests, they hoped to ensure that their ethical assessments would be untainted by professional or financial conflicts of interests.  Maintaining this sort of autonomy, however, has proven to be nearly impossible and today many bioethics programs receive large financial contributions from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Additionally, mainstream bioethicists remain dependent on biomedical actors and institutions for access to information and career-building contacts.  Science-entrepreneurs are unlikely to associate with a bioethicist who recommends halting research because it is ethically troublesome; they will seek to work with bioethicists who tell them how to package what they want to do to gain approval. Usually, this means drawing- up "guidelines" for how to proceed "ethically."  In the big picture, then, the social function of mainstream bioethics has come to be that of shepherding controversial biotechnologies into broad social acceptance.  

Bioethicists who do not recommend moving forward with research programs are criticized, often after being labeled "conservative." Even the progressive Left finds it difficult to break through this barrier.  In the case of human cloning research, for example, research advocates tend to dismiss all criticism as being "pro-life," even when arguments are not based on the sanctity of the embryo but rather on challenges to corporate control and patenting of human genes and cells. 

 

RECOMMENDED READING

Elliot, Carl. "Pharma Buys a Conscience"

Stevens, M. L. Tina, "Bioethics in America: An Interview with Tina Stevens," by Casey Walker, Institute for Inquiry, Wild Duck Review

Stevens, M. L. Tina. "Intellectual Capital and Voting Booth Bioethics..."

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