The Magazine

Liberty, Equality, Eugenics

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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Whose View of Life?

Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells

by Jane Maienschein

Harvard University Press, 368 pp., $27.95

THIS OUGHT TO BE a welcome contribution to contemporary bioethical debates--a book, written by a well-regarded historian of science and published by a prestigious academic press, that engages the history of embryo research, stem cell research, and cloning, while promising to tackle the contentious issue of when life begins.

Unfortunately, "Whose View of Life?" doesn't deliver on its promise. Jane Maienschein--a historian of developmental biology at Arizona State University who served as a science adviser to Arizona Republican congressman Matt Salmon--does well enough describing the fascinating, early history of embryology. But when she wades into the ethical and political challenges posed by contemporary embryo research, she proves far less interesting. The tone of the book is set by its beginning, with President Bush's August 2001 address about limitations on stem cell research. How, Maienschein peevishly asks, can "a self-proclaimed mediocre student and no particular fan of academic research" like Bush be "in the position to decide what science the National Institutes of Health would be allowed to fund"?

By page three, Maienschein's answer to the question of when life begins has become clear. In high dudgeon she describes people who believe that life begins at conception as "extreme advocates" and "absolutists," while those who believe that "a life emerges only gradually" are described as holding "reasoned interpretations." Within a few pages she has produced a little girl with diabetes who "worries that powerful senators like Sam Brownback are in the position to outlaw the stem cell and therapeutic cloning research that she believes is her best chance at a cure and at her survival." "It's like he's killing me," the girl tells Maienschein. Maienschein is fascinated by the history of our earliest attempts to study the beginnings of human life, and the book abounds with enthusiastic descriptions of embryology's pioneers: Nicolaas Hartsoeker and his seventeenth-century vision of early life--a "preformationist homunculus" that looks like a tiny alien with a bagel for a head, crouched inside its mother's womb--and Marcello Malpighi painstakingly cracking open chicken eggs to study the developing chicks.

Maienschein is keen on arguing that this history teaches lessons for contemporary debates, and it's true that many of our current discussions about biotechnology need a deeper knowledge of the past. All too often, however, Maienschein applies her history selectively, as an ethical balm and as justification for her own views. Looking at current debates through a historical lens, she argues, lets us see that "competing interpretations of life" have always existed. "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. . . . History can show that we are not on the brink of some new type of danger that we have never encountered before."

This is not entirely convincing considering the history she explores. In her discussion of the early birth-control movement, for example, Maienschein portrays Margaret Sanger as a fearless crusader for women. Left unmentioned is the fact that Sanger was also an ardent eugenicist whose lobbying group, the American Birth Control League, frequently joined forces with the nation's major eugenics organizations.

Indeed, Maienschein's own treatment of the eugenics movement contains warnings that she might consider heeding when it comes to contemporary embryo research. "Eugenics seemed to make perfectly good sense," Maienschein writes. In a society dominated by "hereditarian thinking," Americans thought eugenics was "good policy based on good science." Today, of course, "we ought to have learned not to make similar mistakes." Chastened by our experience in the past, Maienschein argues, we can be even more certain that the good policies based on good science we pursue today are ethically sound.

But can we? It is at least worth considering how our children and grandchildren might eventually view embryo research, and how they might judge our society, which is currently dominated by a somewhat different, though no less dangerous, way of thinking than extreme hereditarianism: an intoxicating desire to expand the reach of our science and technology not merely to study or cure, but to improve, to enhance, and to transform human life.