The etymological roots of the “bioethics” suggest that its subject is the principles governing the morality of dealing with life, especially human life. For a word coined to describe a new discipline in about 1970, it has had a good run. But according to a commentary in the world’s leading science journal, Nature, by a sociologist at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, it may have done its dash.

Sarah Franklin’s contribution to essays marking the 150th anniversary of Nature charts the rise and decline of the field of bioethics. It meanders through Darwinism and eugenics, and it concludes with the ominous (at least for bioethicists, that is) conclusion that bioethics has become irrelevant. “The pursuit of a more ethical science has come to be associated with building trust by creating transparent processes, inclusive participation and openness to uncertainty, as opposed to distinguishing between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.”

In other words, bioethics is being displaced by sociology. No more arguing about the messy, ever-controversial business of what we ought to do and what we ought not to do. Instead, we look at what is and use that as the standard. With a little buffing and polishing, whatever is, is right.

It’s significant that this article emerged from an English university because this is a particularly English response to bioethical dilemmas. It began with Dame Mary Warnock, another Cambridge professor. From 1982 to 1984 she expertly chaired a committee on human embryo experimentation. Its conclusions were eventually enshrined in the UK’s famous and influential Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.

Although Warnock was a philosopher who viewed the metaphysical and ethical issues at stake with a clear and steady eye, her colleagues believed that she had made a hash of the business with her 14-day limit on experimenting with embryos. Philosophically inconsistent, sniffed the philosophers. Why 14? Why not 37? Why not 4? Why any limit at all?

But Warnock understood, as others perhaps did not, that the goal was not to find the truth, but to allow scientists to do whatever they liked. The pathway was securing public support, then legal approval, and then government funding. The philosophical niceties – and the goal-post shifting – could come later. As Professor Franklin points out:

The law itself, Warnock argued, would act as both a guarantor and a symbol of public morality; it would in its combination of permissive scope and legislative precision express “the moral idea of society”. This was a new template for ethical reasoning.

Warnock opened up a pathway for controversial biological research which English scientists have followed with enormous success ever since. The science lobby wins over legislators with public opinion polls, focus groups and a never-ending stream of position papers from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics:

In short, [writes Franklin] expert knowledge and reliable data are essential but never enough to enable enduring, humane governance to emerge. So there is now more emphasis on continuous communication and outreach, and on long-term strategies to ensure collective participation and feedback at all stages of scientific inquiry. The result is less reliance on specialized ethical expertise and more attention to diversity of representation.

Franklin’s implication is that there’s not a great need for philosophising if you can change public opinion with sophisticated, highly targeted public relations. It’s not an view of bioethics which has endeared her to bioethicists.

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she, was the response of Udo Schüklenk, who edits the journals Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics. He responds indignantly to her “lovely mix of half-truths and nonsense”:

What is mostly off-base about Franklin's take on bioethics is that she sees apparently no room for ethical analysis and expertise on matter biopolicy when we could have the freewheeling societal dialogue instead that she prefers. Clearly there is no contradiction in having both. The former should hopefully fruitfully inform the latter.

Craig Klugman, writing on a blog of the American Journal of Bioethics, complains that Franklin fails to understand how bioethics works in society:

This article shows a common misunderstanding: Bioethics has never been the arbiter of what can be done. Bioethicists have never had the power to say what research can and cannot take place. Her claim that we have fallen out of favor and out of power is based on a mistaken idea that we ever held such lofty positions in the first place. We never have. Sure, we consult, serve on boards, and offer frameworks for understanding, but that is a far cry from being Clotho, Lachesis, and Moirai (The Greek Fates).

However, bioethics writer Wesley J. Smith, writing in the National Review, believes that Franklin’s account of the brief history of bioethics confirms his darkest fears about the future of a humane and principled approach to human research. “Franklin says bioethicists have ceased being thought leaders but merely so many PR professionals in the service of Big Biotech.” He believes that we are caught between the crass pragmatism of the biotechnology sector and bioethics “experts” [his emphasis] who deny the sanctity and intrinsic dignity of human life.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss this dispute over the meaning and the future of bioethics as mere academic shadow-boxing. Bioethicists do have real power when they catch the ear of politicians and policy-makers. They are put on display as oracles of logic, prudence and scientific thinking to intimidate opponents of the policy of the day.

But as the tiff over Franklin’s article indicates, there is no need to kow-tow to bioethicists. For decades bioethicists have been engaged in a bitter civil war about the principles of their own discipline. Listen to them, but don’t ever take their words as gospel truth.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet