Comments - Molly Shanley

Comments - Molly Shanley

Comments on “Values for a New Biopolitics”
Tarrytown Meetings, July 2012
Mary L. (Molly) Shanley
Vassar College


Thank you so much for inviting me to join this panel. I benefited greatly from reading “Values for a New Biopolitics,” and am looking forward to this discussion.

The authors seek a grounding for policy development in biotechnology that avoids both conservative dogmatism that can derail research projects (in the mode of the Bush moratorium on government funding of stem cell research) on the one hand, and the refusal to make value judgments on the other. They rightly contend that all research takes place in a social and economic context that means that no research is value free—one cannot “keep politics out of science,” nor should one. Moreover, scientific advances will inevitably privilege some and marginalize others. Their task, then, is to create a framework for progressive and ethical thinking and, particularly, policy making about biotechnologies.    

The authors identify 5 principles or norms to evaluate existing and emerging biotechnologies:

          Social justice

          Human rights

          Common Good

          Precautionary approach

          Democratic practice

I agree with their values and have no substantive arguments to raise about the importance of these values or how the authors define them. I did have two sets of reflections on how these concerns might be presented to a larger audience.

The first is that my own preference would be to condense these five principles to three, which I think would focus discussion more sharply and would make the kinds of issues at stake clearer—but that is a matter of expositive style and a judgment about strategies of persuasion (about which I have no expertise). The three categories would be:

          —Social justice (to include Human Rights)

          —The Common Good (to include the precautionary approach and prudential considerations)

          —Democratic governance

The second reflection involves a slight reframing to set up more clearly the problem to which this position paper is a response. The authors want to answer both those on the right who argue for traditional values that would stifle scientific research and some of the social changes that would follow from new biotechnologies, and those on the left who say “keep politics out of science; keep science value free.” But it is the latter that are intellectually (if not practically) most worrisome. This is because the normative underpinning of the “keep politics out of science” position is more pervasive than the conservative perspective, I think. It stems from a neoliberal approach that is so pervasive at present that shifting the perceptual frame will be difficult. Shifting the perceptual frame is, however, why we are gathered here at Tarrytown.

What is the normative framework of neoliberalism (or libertarian liberalism) to which I refer?

Neoliberalism rests on both

          1) an exaggerated individualism, and

          2) a hostility to government that extends not only to government spending but also to government regulation.


Why is this a problem? It is a problem because it generates a panoply of false assumptions. Neoliberal assumptions 

          1) misunderstand the meaning of “freedom,” equating freedom with market choice;

          2) treat the body as property (and therefore body parts as transferable and marketable possessions);

          3) frame the sphere of legitimate government activity as limited to the maintenance of public order, the promotion of free market conditions, and the protection of the individual from interference from others or from the state. Hence in biomedical research, government’s role is to regulate for informed consent, safety, non-coercion, but not for social purposes.

If this is the problem, then the authors’ “Values for a New Biopolitics” is a fine response, articulating what is left out, marginalized, or ignored in this paradigm:

1) With respect to Social Justice and Human Rights:

 (a) The authors rightly insist that a meaningful understanding of “freedom” requires the conditions and capacities to make the exercise of choice meaningful in such practices as organ donation/sale, traditional or gestational surrogacy, or stem cell procurement through embryo, egg, and tissue donation/sale.

(b) Most discussions of ARTs focus on the decision-making capabilities of the adults involved. It is crucial, however, to consider the rights and interests of persons who will come into being if the procedures are successful. The recent insistence by donor-conceived persons for non-anonymous donation or donor registries responds to this ethical demand.


2) With respect to the Common Good and a Precautionary Approach:

          The authors make the extremely important point that the cumulative exercise of individual choices, seemingly only personal in scope, can have social consequences. For example, in the realm of assisted reproductive technologies, the exercise of seeming “private” choice by those with enough money to avail themselves of the technologies culturally validates some people’s decision about family formation while at the same time other social policies like “child caps” in welfare regulations ignore or denigrate those of others.

          Similarly, discussions of sex selection for “family balancing” usually consider only the ethics of sex selection within the family, but in fact the cumulative effect of sex selection impacts gender balance and gender hierarchy in society as a whole.

          Modification of inheritable genetic traits may affect not only individuals but also the position of various groups in social and economic hierarchies.

          Monies spent on reproductive treatments may take away from basic medical care that could lower infertility throughout the population.


3) With respect to Democratic Governance:

          The authors ask how we can address these conflicting values and visions? How should we define “family,” “filiation,” “citizenship” (because citizenship derives from filiation)?

          How do we apply our demands for openness and accountability to research labs and biotech businesses that may or may not receive government funding?

My one caveat here is that I am not as certain as the authors that democratic debate will lead to a common understanding, or even to acceptance of the legitimacy of the outcomes; it should do so, but I’m not certain it will.


One final remark: As I read “Values for a New Biopolitics,” the philosophical grounding/argument that came to my mind was the “capabilities approach” developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It attempts to answer both radical individualism and communitarianism; it invokes the notions of “rights,” but it insists upon the significance of context for the definition and exercise of those rights. The document doesn’t need a single philosophical framework to underpin its discussion, but mention of large frameworks that attempt to respond to neoliberalism—that of Habermas as well as Nussbaum and Sen comes to mind—may be useful.