Religion, Genetics, and the Evolving American Experiment with Bioethics

John Gregory Whitesides

Abstract

Bioethics is an experiment in culture. As controversial new biological and medical technologies arise, the “public,” with all its institutional and ideological diversity in tow, responds – often in a cacophony of conflicting policy prescriptions. The resulting chaos thus requires a special class of professionals – the bioethicists – to determine the “appropriate” position, i.e. which research and practices should be allowed, funded and released to the public, and which should be condemned or even criminalized. In theory, the appropriate policies are determined and enacted, the appropriate research and practices go forward, and the public accepts and applauds the wisdom of biomedical elites. The reality is far messier. Over the past thirty years, bioethics – a field established to resolve conflict – has itself become a source of conflict and dispute. As such, this paper focuses on religion and genetics to chart the evolution of the American experiment with bioethics. The history reveals two primary trends: the “rationalization” of bioethics in the 1970s and 80s; and the corresponding conservative “Christian” backlash beginning in the 1990s. Additionally, the focus on controversial genetic research highlights the growing politicization of bioethics and Presidential bioethical committees as well as the use of bioethical issues in political elections. Finally, the first decade of the current millennium provides yet another twist: the growing importance of non-traditional or “radical” bioethics and more “liberal” Christian positions.

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