It is hard for any physician to advance as a medical researcher. Competition for research funding is fierce; the rigors of publishing in prestigious medical journals are gargantuan. And women pursuing such careers face even bigger challenges, with many having … Continue reading →
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Bioethics as a field emerged in post WWII America during an era of American political stability and international economic and military dominance. Those of us working in the field of bioethics for past few decades, as beneficiaries of this setting, take for granted the American democratic political system and its traditions as the natural context and moral framework for scientific discovery and ethical decision-making. Though we might invoke normative ethical approaches at times on particular issues, from both various philosophical and religious traditions, generally speaking most major ethical dilemmas both at the broader policy level and in particular settings of individual patient care and research issues, must proceed according to well-established procedural rules and standards. The goal of ethical resolution in our democratic context is not to arrive at the ultimate, final, or “the” canonical ethical answer, but to reach a consensus between opposing moral perspectives that preserves a plurality of moral values based on well-established moral and legal democratic principles and values. Thus, bioethics as a field that deals with living, practical ethical conflicts depends on a stable, democratic political system in which people with diverse values and beliefs can find non-violent, indeed peaceful means of finding resolutions to their moral differences. It is in this light that bioethicists should find very concerning what is happening in our presidential election cycle.
Bombast and lack of substance have always been part of American political rhetoric. Normally I would see the role of bioethicists to advocate for policy positions within the political process, but try to remain relatively neutral in attacking or supporting particular political candidates and speaking out so candidly about issues. But in my judgment, this election cycle is an exception. Now is the time for all thoughtful people who value democracy and, in particular, bioethicists should speak out strongly. We are not in a position to take our political order and indeed the framework for moral decision making for granted.
For the first time in post-WWII America, we see ideas under consideration, like deporting 12 million undocumented aliens, which is not only unconstitutional, but, even if it were logistically possible, would cause untold physical and emotional suffering, not to mention in all likelihood an economic crisis; barring Muslims from entering our country, or requiring an ideological test for all immigrants; building a wall between our country and Mexico (in spite of the fact that there are as many people leaving the U.S. as entering); in general we see fabrication of information, character assassination, innuendos, shifting views and talking points, nothing resembling a test of ideas and reasonable exchange of competing views. Some may see such rhetoric and tactics as just more bombast and nothing that could fundamentally change the character of our country. On the contrary, this is one of those potentially disruptive times, much like the McCarthy era, in the life of a nation that could render our basic social and political institutions unrecognizable.
There are growing numbers of citizens in the US with legitimate gripes, who feel their interests have been ignored. As the economy has grown in many specialized areas, as companies have become more efficient in terms of using automation and technology requiring fewer workers, the jobs that built the great middle class in post-WWII America for decades have been eviscerated. Too many of the policies of the past thirty years designed to address these issues, such as lowing taxes on the rich, which many of which these same suffering workers supported, have left them without the skills to participate in a fundamentally different kind of economy and standing little chance to achieve a similar level of wealth as their parents did with the same skills.
This partly explains why a segment of voters are responding positively to extreme proposals even as many admit they cannot actually be accomplished. Because of their fading hope and trust in the system, some of these voters have become iconoclasts—literally someone who seeks to blow up the system regardless of the consequences. Tragically, their despair, as expressed currently in political terms, approaches nihilism. For them the message is clear, the American way of life no longer provides them meaning and purpose.
However, flagging economic conditions alone cannot account for all of what is happening politically. Another part of the explanation also involves evolving cultural and religious norms over the past few decades governing same sex marriage, women’s roles and their reproductive rights, along with greater ethnic and religious inclusion and tolerance—changes that we liberals celebrate as progress and essential to a growing democracy—that are anathema to many on the political and cultural right.
These complex macro economic and sociocultural trends are warning signs and indicative of a vulnerable moment in our history, where a wrong outcome at the presidential level could change the character of our nation for generations, if not forever.
I conclude that this political season is not a normal cycle in the American democratic experiment. It is not a time for thoughtful people and thought-leaders like bioethicists, to remain silent. We must speak out individually and make ourselves heard. Then we must make an effort to better understand the current political conditions and incorporate that understanding into our professional discourse and thinking. Otherwise, we will be ignoring a most fundamental concern, i.e. the very democratic character of our ethical framework grounded in the American political system. We cannot now, or ever, simply take for granted that it will remain intact for future generations.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.
by Nancy King, JD
I have just read your August 25 post on the EPA studies. While, I do not know that much about these particular exposure studies, I do know that EPA is taking the inquiry very seriously. I do want to question and clarify some of your discussion, principally with respect to Resnik’s 4th and 5th criteria.
You say: “Criteria 4, that the subject must “receive some benefits, such as medical evaluations” seems like a very light standard. If the medical evaluation were part of the study and data was being used for the study, would it be a benefit?…