Jennifer Lahl: People often wonder how it is that pro-choice and pro-life feminists have come together in this great human cloning debate. That conservatives on the right and progressives on the left have found common ground and been able to work together seems miraculous! How and why do you think this has happened?
Stevens: The Right seems to have come to the cloning debate over a concern for the sanctity of the embryo. For the progressive Left concerns rested more immediately on women’s health issues regarding egg extraction. There are, however, more areas of overlap. Both are concerned, for example, with inheritable genetic modification and “techno-eugenics”. Many on all points of the pro-life — pro-choice spectrum are concerned by biotech conflicts of interest, starting with the motivational distortions caused by patenting. This can lead to grotesque situations. A dramatic example is the case of Jesse Gelsinger. Additionally, both the Right and the Left, I think, are concerned with biotech’s propensity to commodify human biology – looking at human biology for how it can be broken into components and capitalized upon. You don’t have to come from a religious tradition to feel that a profit motive should not be the driving force behind biomedical development and that when it is the driving force fairness, justice, and equality eventually will be compromised.
Beeson: Those of us who have come together seem to have done so because we understand that as important as the question of abortion is—and for me the right of women to control our own bodies is a very important prerequisite for a just and compassionate society—we see big biotech is taking us in a direction that has even more profound implications for the future of our species and for our humanity.
I have worked for social justice in many arenas in my life. I have opposed war and racism and in those struggles all my allies were not necessarily pro-choice. Whenever and wherever people can find common ground I think they should take advantage of it.
Perhaps the biggest factor in making me appreciate pro-life people has been their attitude toward disability and their rejection of eugenics. Throughout my career as a medical sociologist (over thirty years) I have studied families undergoing prenatal diagnosis and other forms of genetic testing. I have admired the way many pro-life families stuck to their principles even when the fetus was found to be severely disabled. When I was younger I believed the confident predictions of the geneticists that selective abortion was merely a temporary solution; within a few years we would have cures for all these conditions and we would not be practicing prenatal eugenics. The fact is the cures haven’t come, but the eugenic functions of reproductive genetics have expanded. For example, I learned years ago that we could eliminate most neural tube defects by addressing folic acid (a B vitamin) deficiencies in women. We chose instead to put our resources into massive prenatal screening programs throughout the country. I also learned from parents of disabled children that the meaning of any condition is not in the genetics, biology or physiology of it, but in how families respond to it.
I have watched prenatal diagnosis become the primary tool for preventing the birth of human females throughout the world. The latest estimates are that more than 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India alone over the past two decades. This shows how reproductive technologies tend to be used to reinforce existing power arrangements.
While we are all being dazzled with the promises of high tech medicine many people’s health is declining because we aren’t taking care of the basics. We are offering more and more expensive interventions to fewer and fewer people. This feeds inequality and undermines democracy.
Unless our consciousness is dramatically altered and we get our priorities straight it is clear to me that we are moving toward encoding into our biology through inheritable genetic modification all the social inequality that the world has worked so hard to reduce. With such high stakes I think those of us concerned about this misapplications of science need all the allies we can muster.
Lahl: Are you optimistic that this is evidence that there is more common ground on other issues and we may be headed for less bipartisanship and a redefinition of boundaries? I mean, after all, everyone has a stake in ethical advances in science and biomedical technologies.
Beeson: I hope so. The real challenge is to find some common ground on the abortion issue, which on the face of it seems impossible. This is where the stakes seem very high. I would hate for us to lose the battle for the future biological integrity of our species, or even have clonal fetuses developed to near term in artificial wombs only to have their organs harvested because the antagonism between pro-choicers and pro-lifers made dialogue on these issues impossible. But this is where we are headed. I believe that Canadians are taking a more critical stance on human embryo cloning because women there are more secure in their abortion rights.
Lahl: What has been most surprising to you in these new relationships and collaborations with the Left and the Right? Any side benefits? Or pitfalls?
Beeson: Frankly, I have been very disappointed in how frightened pro-choice feminists are that any challenge to corporate manipulation of human fetuses will undermine abortion rights. To some extent this is understandable given how tenuous abortion rights now are. I fear that Alito’s appointment to the Supreme Court and further threats to abortion rights will destroy any hope of getting many feminists to be critical of big biotech and human cloning. They just don’t want to risk that this will be misunderstood as conferring some bit of sanctity on the embryo. For this reason, Tina and I have had our pro-choice credentials constantly called into question. Many feminists who agree with us about the dangers ahead won’t publicly challenge embryonic stem cell research because they fear that this will make them appear to be associated with pro-lifers, and they fear this could hurt their reputations, their careers, or their organization’s funding streams.
I have enjoyed the personal relationships I’ve had with pro-lifers. I understand some think they are successfully using us to promote their agenda. I like interacting with people who have different perspectives on things. I usually learn something from those encounters.
Stevens: It surprised me how difficult it is for actors on the Left to come forward publicly about their concerns over Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). Associating too closely with the religious right in a political atmosphere of sharply divided left-right “culture wars” can cause a loss of what could be called “credibility capital”. During the Prop 71 campaign in California, news people asking for interviews were incredulous that we were “really” pro-choice – implying that we were fronting for the religious right. Hopefully, we are pushing past this.
Lahl: What other issues in bioethics are ripe for these continued collaborative efforts? i.e. transhumanism, genetic ethics.
Stevens: Transhumanism, inheritable genetic modification, sex selection, human reproductive cloning, etc., — these are all areas where the Right and Left can collaborate. All the concerns mentioned above apply to these areas as well. (from part one of the interview—reiterated here. The concerns of compromising fairness, justice and equality apply to these areas as well. Safety for women’s health remains a real concern. And the conflicts of interest in biotech we’ve seen, such as motivational distortions caused by bio-patenting issues and the desire to capitalize on human biology.)
Beeson: I think eugenics is a big one, as I have already suggested. I don’t see transhumanism as a separate issue. This is the logical extension of the direction we are moving in. Fortunately, the technol
ogy has a long way to go. Other things like bird flu may do us in before these techno-utopian dreams get too far along. I wish we could work together to get universal health care. That would create a context in which people could think more rationally about where big biotech wants to take us.
Jennifer Lahl is National Director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network; M.L. Tina Stevens, Ph.D., author of Bioethics in America, teaches in the History Department at San Francisco State University.; Diane Beeson, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Social Services at California State University, East Bay.
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