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The Organization Men

What is the relationship between professional bioethics and social activism? Bioethics has accumulated many of the trappings of academic life (journals, conferences, Volvos), yet many old-school bioethicists, when asked how they got involved with in the field, will point to the activist movements of the 1960s. Apparently, in an atmosphere thick with social activism, from civil rights marches and anti-war sit-ins to environmentalist protests and feminist consciousness-raising sessions, bioethicists found it easy to imagine their emerging field as a social movement in its own right, standing up for patients in a showdown with medical authority. Or so goes the romantic picture. Since I was in elementary school at the time, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Now that the ex-activists have tenure, however, things look a little different. Social activism makes a lot of bioethicists nervous, especially if they are the ones being protested against instead the ones carrying the signs. “Not Dead Yet” pickets Princeton ethicist Peter Singer for his views on infanticide; Guinea Pig Zero hammers Penn ethicist Arthur Caplan for his role in the Gelsinger scandal; a band of students present Harold Shapiro, the former chairman of the National Bioethics Advisory Council, board member of The Hastings Center, and corporate board director for Dow Chemicals, with a bottle of contaminated water from Bhopal. These days, sticking it to the Man can mean sticking it to a Bioethicist.

Professional bioethicists are exactly not the main topic of Pete Shanks’ recent book, Human Genetic Engineering, but they play an interesting role. Billing the book as a grassroots political handbook (the subtitle is “A Guide for Activists, Skeptics and the Very Perplexed“), Shanks provides a smart, highly readable overview of the ethical and political landscape surrounding all things genetic, from gene doping and sperm sorting through cloning and stem cell research. If his take on bioethicists is representative of wider public opinion, however, the field may need to consider a new PR strategy.

Like many activists, Shanks portrays bioethicists as part of a class of experts who have carved out a profitable economic niche for themselves, who believe that their own voices should be privileged in ethical debates, and who have often emerged as de facto boosters of technology. Perhaps less predictably – at least from an author published by Nation Books, whose backlist includes titles such as Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Ralph Estes’ Taking back the Corporation: A Mad as Hell Guide, and John C. Bonifaz’s Warrior-King: The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush – Shanks is rather more forgiving of conservative ethicists than of liberal ones. So while he sees the views of Leon Kass as anachronistic, even objectionable, he also calls Kass a “gentleman of the old school.” This is more than he can say for many liberal bioethicists, who have signed up with the corporate and biomedical organizations they are supposed to be criticizing. Shanks writes, “A good rule of thumb on ethics is: don’t trust the experts.”

Is this an accurate picture of bioethics? Probably not. (Shanks is also a lot more polite than I have made him sound.) It would probably be better to characterize it as an accurate picture of a very narrow segment of American bioethics, which, perhaps unfortunately, is often all that the public sees. Yet it is probably true that, with bioethics positions at theAmerican Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the White House (not to mention advisory work for corporations such as Novartis, Advanced Cell Technology andBurrill and Company), bioethicists have become more comfortable occupying established structures of power than trying to undermine them. Whether they have remained faithful to their earlier mission is, of course, another question.

Carl Elliott

Readers respond

I wanted to point out a couple of things regarding Not Dead Yet and bioethics:

1. One of the very first protest actions of Not Dead Yet was at a bioethics conference back in 1996 (see

2. The Salon article (linked as a source of info about the NDY protest of Singer) contains a couple of serious errors. First, it incorrectly identifies Carol Cleigh as the president of Not Dead Yet. As a result, her charge of Singer being “the most dangerous man in the world” has been incorrectly attributed to the actual president of Not Dead Yet, Diane Coleman.

At Not Dead Yet, we most often describe Singer as the “ugly tip of the iceberg” of mainstream bioethics, which is probably a better fit with the general theme of Ellliot’s article, anyway.

– Stephen Drake
Not Dead Yet

Published on: April 21, 2006
Published in: Arts & Ideas, Bioethics

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