We are now living in the age of biopolitics, claims University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan Moreno in his new book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America. “Biopolitics is the nonviolent struggle for control over the actual and imagined achievements of the new biology and the new world it symbolizes,” he writes. “The stakes are about as big as they can get.” Moreno is right.
Our biopolitical and bioethical struggles span human concerns from birth to death. Should embryos be tested genetically in vitro, allowing parents to implant only those they choose? What about using embryos to produce stem cells that can be transformed into tissues to repair damaged hearts and brains? Is it OK to create mice endowed with human brain cells? When is it appropriate to halt medical care for people who show no signs of minimal consciousness?
Moreno, who has served on three presidential advisory committees as well as advising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an excellent guide to the recent public policy battles over assisted reproduction, embryonic stem cells, cloning, predictive genetics, synthetic biology, and the application of biomedical life support. Contemporary biopolitics, Moreno argues, is disrupting the conventional left/right ideological categories. On one side stands an uneasy “bioconservative” alliance of moralizing neoconservatives and egalitarian left-wingers who fear that the new biotechnologies threaten human dignity and human equality. On the other side are “bioprogressives” who welcome the new advancements for their capacity to confer greater freedom to flourish.
Noting how favorably the Founders viewed Enlightenment science, Moreno starts by placing our current biopolitical conflicts in historical context. “It is fair to say that no nation has ever been founded by people who were more oriented toward the pursuit and propagation of knowledge than the United States,” he writes. For the last two centuries, as the old General Electric slogan puts it, progress has been America’s most important product.
In the new age of biopolitics, however, the conventional American belief that there is no contradiction between technological, material, and moral progress may be breaking down. Aside from being one of America’s most prominent bioethicists, Moreno is a self-identified political progressive and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank in Washington, D.C.
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