It is really striking how many resources have been devoted to creating laws to control the behavior of pregnant women and how few to addressing third-...moreIt is really striking how many resources have been devoted to creating laws to control the behavior of pregnant women and how few to addressing third-party violence against them.(less)
Anyone even superficially familiar with American politics will not be surprised that the country’s citizens are divided when it comes to research invo...moreAnyone even superficially familiar with American politics will not be surprised that the country’s citizens are divided when it comes to research involving human embryos. Seventy percent of Americans are in favor of stem cell research using adult stem cells; 57 percent when embryonic cells are used. Fifty-two percent of Americans favor therapeutic cloning; 78 percent oppose reproductive cloning (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2008). With issues like these that so many people feel passionately about, it is easy to fall into non-constructive circular arguments. One way to create a more constructive discourse is to encourage all parties to learn about the history of the issues and how they got to this point.
That is where Jane Maienschein comes in with her important book Whose View of Life? Embryos, cloning, and stem cells. Her aim is to show that many of the debates occurring today, such as when life begins, are the same ones that have been debated for hundreds of years or more. The technology has changed, as has some of the language, but we are still trying to resolve core issues about what life means and who gets to decide. Maienschein is careful to lay out her argument that history matters for these discussions right away in the book. She lists several supporting points:
First…By viewing current claims of moral truth in historical perspective, we can defuse the efficacy of the argument—even if not the passion of the arguer. Second, perhaps we can learn something from past responses to hard questions…Most interestingly, we can understand the way that the past debates have shaped and constrained our current conditions. (p. 8)
She acknowledges that the science changes, and that our moral response to new developments should change as we learn more about the science. But she still believes that “History can show that we are not on the brink of some new type of danger that we have never encountered before” (p. 12).
Maienschein is particularly qualified to address this topic. She is a professor of Biology and Society at Arizona State University as well as a former congressional science adviser. Readers looking for a historical account completely stripped of the author’s voice may not find the purity they are seeking, but even when she lets her opinions peek through, she presents a respectful and balanced picture of the different sides of each issue she covers. Even Leon Kass, adviser for President George W. Bush, gets a fair shake. Maienschien does not think that his “wisdom of repugnance” is an acceptable way to may policy decisions, but where she could have caved to the temptation to write disdainfully about him, she models her own advice on understanding all sides of an issue. After all, there is a large section of the population that feels similar to Kass. Instead of dismissing him, she tactfully explains why his “problematic intuitionist approach…struggles to find legitimate grounding in a pluralistic society where people deeply disagree, and have good reasons for disagreeing, about what is repugnant” (p. 287). A while she does not think Bush made the best decision in his August 2001 stem cell proclamation, saying “In the end, he satisfied no one,” she addressed it in a balanced way by looking at the evidence and delineating the myriad pressures he was experiencing (p. 285).
However, her evenhanded treatment and conscientiousness in addressing various viewpoints is somewhat weakened by the frequent use of value-laden words that seem not to have been thought out as well. It is a minor distraction, almost like a written tic, but its effect accumulates as one works through the book. Some examples of this language: she talks about a “lovely conference facility” (p. 131) and a “lovely book” by Samuel Florman (p. 134). She writes about “some scientists who know better” and “molecular geneticists and biochemists who knew better” (p. 224). Discussing Watson’s role in raising funding for the ELSI program, she uses phrases like “this seems unfair,” “Watson may well have seen,” “Watson seems much less likely,” and “an ingenious strategy” (p. 199-200, emphasis mine). This is a very minor quibble, but language like this may distract some readers.
Another of Maienschein’s rhetorical choices that may distract a reader (though this reader quite enjoyed it) is her liberal use of questions, some of which remain unanswered. Some readers may be frustrated by finding questions in a book they are looking to for only answers. Other readers will appreciate the questions for the way they make the reader think about her own experience and preconceptions. Also, the fact is that there are many, many unanswered questions around embryonic research, so Maienschein is choosing to give the reader an idea of what these are instead of avoiding posing the questions that do not have an answer yet. She often introduces these questions at the end of a section, either to show how much our culture still needs to figure out, or as a lead-in to the next section. These big questions range from “Given that we cannot possibly include everyone, how can we make the best possible effort to cover the most important range of needs?” (p. 196) to “What is the value of an egg? Of life? What is a good and valued life?” (p. 239). Some readers looking for just the facts may feel derailed by these questions, but I see them as a crucial aspect of her narrative. As seen in the statistics cited earlier, these issues surrounding the value of life are highly divisive. Learning from Maienschein what these big questions are can help readers understand the division. And how can we begin to answer questions such as these without first asking them?
Maienschein ends with a reiteration of her argument that history has something to teach us, scientists and non-scientists alike. She knows the answers to the pressing scientific questions will not come from science alone, saying “Any policy answer should be grounded in the best available current science and the best moral thinking—and in the knowledge that science and morality are not intrinsically at odds” (p. 301). To address these issues, the public must become more scientifically literate and “more scientists must become politically literate” (p. 303). Finally, she calls for “interpreters” or “translators” of science who can serve as “meta-experts” to guide the discourse (p. 303). Anyone wishing to pursue such a role can take a good first step with this well-reasoned book. (less)
Delightfully bizarre. The story centers around Louis, the fetus who received extensive prenatal education and refuses to be born. When Bruckner descri...moreDelightfully bizarre. The story centers around Louis, the fetus who received extensive prenatal education and refuses to be born. When Bruckner describes the global fallout from this decision, it is reminiscent of an inverted Death With Interruptions by Saramago. However, grotesque and arrogant Louis is a fitting descendant of The Tin Drum's Oskar Matzerath.(less)