Frustrated with the success of so-called “conservative” bioethicists in influencing public policy in the US, several “progressive” bioethicists have aligned themselves to the Democratic Party to shift public policy from right to left. Or, in the words of Dr Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, from “religious fanaticism” and “narrow intuitionism” to “pragmatic principalism”.
As a seminar organised by the Center for American Progress, a left- leaning Washington thinktank with close links to the Democratic Party, several “progressive” bioethicists described their initiative in terms which suggest that US bioethics has fissured into nearly irreconcilable camps operating with completely different philosophical frameworks.
According to the speakers at the seminar, progressives believe that bioethics should concern itself with social justice issues, and that human dignity is best promoted by providing the necessities of life, like healthcare, food and education. Conservatives, on the other hand, want “government enforcement of majoritarian prejudices that are based on emotion and instinct and repugnance”. To use the words of R. Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, its recent interest is “foetus fetishism”.
The vehemence of the opinions expressed at the seminar appears to confirm the melancholy observation of Daniel Callahan, one of the pioneers of American bioethics, in a recent issue of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.
He wrote: “Other fields and disciplines, such a political science and economics, have their liberals and conservatives, but they are in the same field — not one side in and one side out — and their reputations as fields do not notably suffer from the disagreements. It is otherwise with bioethics. The general public, and the medical and health policy world, will find it all too easy to dismiss bioethics as ideology driven, left or right politics in sheep’s clothing. If we besmirch each other long enough, the public will soon conclude that we are all frauds.”
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