I started my 9th and almost final class in my graduate program. Just the capstone/thesis left this Fall. The topic is Law and Biotechnology. Since I got an A- on my Bioethics and Law class last year with the instructor’s comment that “I didn’t have a clear understanding of the law” I’m hoping that this class will fill in those thin areas and my goal is an A+.
This week’s topic is whether the law informs bioethics or bioethics informs the law. Early forays into bioethics were in response to specific research abuses, i.e., Nazi atrocities, experiments on vulnerable population (Tuskegee and Willowbrook), and the need to allocate limited resources (dialysis and early transplantation). Bioethics today has been informed by important court decisions (Griswald v. Connecticut, and the beginning a “right to privacy”) followed by the Quinlan and Curzan cases. Barry Schaller, in Understanding Bioethics and the Law states that the law “is America’s preferred means of regulating individual behavior, of resolving disputes, and of ensuring that society functions in a fair and orderly way.” (p.12) One of the problems with this is that “courts are not free to analyze bioethical issues using the widely accepted ethical principles …respect for persons, doing no harm, doing good, and distributive justice” (p. 32) and they “…produce a change that always limits or reduces the area for personal ethical decision-making (p. 34).
One thing that really stood out in my initial reading of the introduction was the short section he had on religion and its impact. He states that “no single religion, or religious belief system can presume to represent moral authority in our type of society” and that “…religious beliefs and values, because they are so diverse, cannot produce consensus, especially the consensus needed to create effective policy on bioethical matters” (p. 12). He later states that “fundamentalist-type views tend to hamper political and social debate rather than illuminate it.”
What I find interesting is that fundamentalism is certainly not limited to the religious right, I know many liberals who are very fundamental in their beliefs and their desire to impose them on others. So whose fundamentalism prevails? I think one could argue that fundamentalist views do illuminate political and social debate, if only for the reason that they present the extremes of any bioethical issue (no abortion ever versus abortions for any reason at any time). The difficulty is finding an area where both groups of fundamentalists can agree. Of course, if bioethical issues were easy we wouldn’t need laws or bioethicists. What do you think?