Mission Creep for Bioethicists

Environmentalists demonstration near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France during the World Climate Change Conference in 2015. (Mal Langsdon/Reuters)

The bioethics movement is nothing if not hubristic. Philosophy majors think they should be the “experts” to whom we hearken for virtually all of society’s problems, not just medical ethics or health-care policy. Thus, in my book Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, I quote a bioethics paper published by UNESCO as stating modestly that the field “goes beyond the codes of ethics of the various professional practices concerned. It implies new thinking on changes in society, or even global equilibria.” All bow down.

It’s really just leftist politics. As movement patriarch Daniel Callahan once put it, bioethics made it big because it “dovetailed nicely with the reigning political liberalism of the educated classes in America.” So, we should not be surprised that the field wants in on global warming policy advocacy. Remember, it’s all about global equilibria!

Still, it is fair to ask what science and policy disputes about global warming have to do with medical ethics and public health policy. Watch Callahan stretch to make the field relevant to the former concerns. From the Hastings Center’s report on a climate-change conference the bioethics institute convened:

Callahan noted that climate change and bioethics both arose from the human quest for progress. Just as medical progress has led to improved medical care and increased life expectancy, it has also raised ethical dilemmas, for example, concerning decision-making at the end of life and the affordability of medicine. Similarly, progress more generally has given rise to increased fossil fuel consumption, which has caused climate change.

“Both global warming mitigation and health improvements share some similar ethical problems and dilemmas,” said Callahan at the meeting. One of them is to find a good balance between cultural change and technological solutions. For health care, there is a tension between preventive medicine and high-tech care. In the case of global warming the tension is between changing climate-affecting behavior, such as burning down forests, and technological and economic solutions, such as solar panels and windmills.

Nope. Bioethics has nothing “expert” to contribute to the idea of anthropogenic warming, “economic solutions” to reducing emissions, or reducing fossil-fuel consumption. As to stopping us from “burning down forests,” I’ll listen to Smokey the Bear.

And get this one:

In her remarks at the meeting, Mildred Solomon, president of The Hastings Center, noted that “a through line across nearly all Hastings projects, over its 50-year history, has been a desire to consider what the right relationship ought to be between humans and nature . . . When does our desire to innovate become exploitation? This tension must be managed in nearly every context The Hastings Center explores — whether the question is about changing the human genome, pursuing a radically extended human lifespan, or producing energy through extraction of natural resources like oil and coal.”

Good grief.

Bioethics has enough on its plate as its leading luminaries seek to impose policies germane to the field, e.g., “quality of life” ethic instead of equality of life, denial of medical conscience, healthcare rationing, live organ harvesting, futile care theory, a virtually anything goes biotechnology, a utilitarian outlook, etc.. We shouldn’t meekly follow the movement’s lead in those areas — just say no to the Technocracy! And we certainly shouldn’t care about their not-so-“expert” opinions about the global-warming issue.

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