April 22, 2024

Will Donald Trump make bioethics great again?

It’s hard to know what direction the President-elect will take

Donald Trump was elected President of the United States this week on a platform of “change”, but it’s unlikely that bioethics figures prominently in his agenda. No remotely bioethical issues are listed in the 100-day plan Trump’s campaign released in October, “Donald Trump’s Contract With The American Voter.” We have to read the tea leaves, and like most tea cups, the future they tell is cloudy.

Most people working in the science, medicine and bioethics are probably unhappy with the prospect of President Trump. The American Physical Society (APS) was forced to retract a press release that urged President-elect Donald Trump to “Make America Great Again” by strengthening “scientific leadership.” One scientist tweeted “why not just go with ‘Physicists for fascism’ and be done with it?”

More measured responses came from Jonathan Moreno, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Art Caplan, of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, both scholars with enormous experience in the intersection of bioethics and politics.

Moreno points out that recent Presidents have appointed bioethics commissions to advise them on controversial issues. If Trump follows their lead, former Presidential hopeful Dr Ben Carson will probably play a role as he was a member of President George W. Bush’s commission. He is strongly pro-life, as is Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, who is in charge of the transition team. They might oppose developments in the rapidly evolving field of genetic engineering.

However, Trump is broadly opposed to government regulation, so his Administration might not want to ban research if it gave other countries a competitive edge.

Caplan sees a dark and gloomy future ahead. “Since Trump is a triumph of, like it or not, a set of values, bioethics is in for some self-assessment and tough hand to hand combat. If we are to endure then there is no room for elitism, snobbery, pretense or moral superiority in our future.”

He believes that Trump’s victory will revive the culture wars of the Bush era, with “the paleocons and religious right” setting the agenda for debates on abortion, conscientious objection, transgender issues, enhancement, and so on. “Conservative ideology and religion will be heard loudly; scientists less so. Dr Oz will flourish. Alternative medicine will gain in influence.”

“I see tougher times for a scientifically grounded public policy in the USA. Respect for empirical methods and evidence will further slide and weaken. The notion that facts ought guide policy is now just a point of view, not a moral presumption.”

One thing is sure. Trumpian bioethics will look different from Clintonian bioethics. As a strong supporter of reproductive rights, Hillary Clinton would have defended Obamacare, abortion, and contraception and would have limited conscientious objection. She probably would have swung behind euthanasia. But until the new President takes office, it’s hard to know what role, if any, bioethics will play in making America great again. 

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