Novel Perspectives on Bioethics

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:Bioethics

On March 16, the Kansas Legislature heatedly debated a bill that would criminalize all stem-cell research in the state. Evangelical-Christian politicians and conservative lawmakers argued with molecular biologists and physicians from the University of Kansas’ medical school about the morality of therapeutic cloning.

Up against a substantial audience of vocal religious conservatives, William B. Neaves, CEO and president of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, a large, privately financed biomedical-research facility in Kansas City, began his impassioned defense of the new research by giving his credentials as “a born-again Christian for 30 years.” Barbara Atkinson, executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, tried to articulate the difference between “a clump of cells in a petri dish” and what several hostile representatives repeatedly interrupted to insist is “early human life.” Clearly, in this forum, language mattered. Each word carried wagonloads of moral resonance.

I am a literature professor. I was at the hearing because I am also chairwoman of the pediatric-ethics committee at the University of Kansas Medical Center. I listened to the debates get more and more heated as the positions got thinner and more polarized, and I kept thinking that these scientists and lawmakers needed to read more fiction and poetry. Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, apparently feels the same way. He opened the council’s first session by asking members to read Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark,”and he has since published an anthology of literature and poetry about bioethics issues.

The fight in Kansas (the bill was not put to a vote) is in some ways a microcosm of what has been happening around the country.

More here.