Bioethical Revolution: Changing Paradigms in Decision-making

Stem cells. What does this topic immediately bring to mind? Although for a select few hearing these words highlights a plethora of scientific knowledge or emotional overflow, for the wide majority of the population, newspaper headings and sound bites from various television news sources are summoned. This topic has undoubtedly evoked public debate and near hysteria in the past couple of years. As announcements of biotechnological advancement and bioethical debate become commonplace in today’s media, an immense power struggle in who exactly makes bioethical decisions is taking place. The emergence of bioethics as a field of science has led to a war between the traditionalists and scientists, a war in which each side seeks to gain public support and to discredit the other party instead of engaging in fruitful discourse. The outcome of this controversy not only has immediate implications for millions of lives, but also, in the near future, could mean the difference between effective biological progress and utter disaster.

In the recent past, most moral decisions regarding bioethics were left up to the private sector, a trend that has shifted greatly in the last few decades.  This shift has provided the groundwork for the conflict between the private and public desire to hold on to this immense responsibility. “Up until the 1960s and 1970s, practical deliberation about ethical matters tended to be left to centers of cultural authority that operated quite independently of the academy. Religious bodies, the family, the professions, and other intermediate institutions made authoritative pronouncements on ethical issues, and also provided the main social vehicles for inculcating “values” in their constituents” [1]. However, recently, a definite reallocation of ethical responsibilities has taken place. The academic world, after centuries of steering clear of the undisputed division between the personal nature of ethics and the universal makeup of science, began to express an interest in the newly formulated, so-called “science of ethics”. Because of this novel field, the earlier, private ethical regime was challenged in a bioethical debate, and once this conflict reached the eyes of the public sector, it soon unraveled to become the bioethical revolution.

Physicist Thomas S. Kuhn’s basic scientific revolution structure provides a template for today’s bioethical debates. Two opposite regimes, personal and scientific, are equivalent to two opposing political parties. The overall result has been a metamorphosis from a professional, private debate between the two opposing sides to one that has very little to do with the issues at hand, and rather scrambles for public support from the general population. In other words, this debate has transformed from a “largely private to a largely public undertaking” [2]. The implications of this shift have had devastating consequences for both parties, and decisions are made “by an ideology that distorts or denies rather than acknowledges and honors the underlying science and ethical commitments of stakeholders” [2].

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn states that science simply cannot be practiced without a set of beliefs received from within a specific community which provide for the “educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice” [3]. He defines normal science as something that “suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive to its basic components” [3]. The sole purpose of research is to enforce the ideals of a set regime. If these are left unchallenged, however, a dominant scientific way of thinking will never advance past its pre-determined boundaries. Kuhn equates novel ideas that permeate the scientific community to a coup in a political revolution; he states that only if the new ideas are logically incompatible with the ones that make up the status quo can there be progress. Furthermore, Kuhn emphasizes that these various scientific methodologies exert minimal effort in resolving and critically examining their intrinsic differences. Rather, it is the theory that has the greatest support from the scientific community that extinguishes the lesser “party” in this revolution.

A case study that focuses on the so-called ethical legislation surrounding stem-cell research further provides support for this gaping hole in logical and professional decision making. The benefits promised from stem-cell research by the “scientist” side of this bioethical debate “include therapies and cures for all manner of disease and disorder from Alzheimer’s Disease to Zellweger Syndrome”, while the religious (private) ethical sector emphasizes the immoral “devaluation of incipient human life… and lack of federal oversight and regulation of human pluripotent stem cell research from bench to bedside” [4]. These melodramatic exaggerations, often found at the heart of media stories, provide very little empirical support for their outrageous claims and generalizations. Stem cells are neither “magic bullets” that provide a cure-all for every disorder nor are they a disgrace to the very concept of humanity; in fact, the majority of the public sector knows very little about the “real” science behind stem cell research. As a whole, “With regard to stem cell biology, many scientists and commentators have tended to promote the angle of ‘us versus them’ in public discussions, and also in scientific  journals, leaving little room for nuanced perspectives on the morality, propriety, and scientific  and prospective therapeutic value of human pluripotent stem cell research” [4].

This disregard for scientific fact and professional, well-reasoned argument leads to the idea that the novel view on bioethics, one that developed less than thirty years ago, and the century-old “private” ethical regime are mutually exclusive. As the “scientific” challenges the classical, there are many questions that still need to be examined. Who should be in charge of the ethics of biology? Scientists? Religious figures? Should these decisions remain a private matter or should nationwide democratic ballot determine the route that this field takes? Although Robert optimistically states “…bioethicists should work in partnership with scientists and publics to craft scientifically well-informed and morally sophisticated debates about forbidding science”, Kuhn’s structure for scientific revolutions deems this infeasible. Although “science is forbidden and constrained all the time, justly and with merit” [4], these constrictions do very little when they are made with the effort to win over the eyes of the public. Only when a single entity has control over the field of bioethics can this ludicrous revolution be complete.

References:

1. Solomon, D. Christian bioethics secular bioethics and the claim to cultural authority. Christian Bioethics. 2005[cited 2010 Oct 26]; 349-359. MEDLINE. EBSCO.

 

2. Berry RM. Three stages in the lifecycle of bioethics observations on bioethics as co-PI. The American Journal Of Bioethics. 2005 [cited 2010 Oct 20]; 30. MEDLINE. EBSCO.

3. Kuhn T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1996.

4. Robert JS. Toward a better bioethics commentary on Forbidding science some beginning reflections. Science And Engineering Ethics. 2009 [cited 2010 Oct 20]; 283-291. MEDLINE. EBSCO.

Tanya Kochengina is a student at Georgia Tech. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter & Join us on Facebook