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.

Worse than selective history is Maienschein's thinly disguised contempt for people who do not share her own view of life as a process that should be subject to our most extreme technological manipulations. This is clearest in her treatment of Catholics. Popes past and present are treated with disdain. "Evidently, Pope Pius IX did not need to know more about reproduction and development to proclaim the Catholic Church's official position on the beginning of life," she sniffs while describing the 1869 encyclical "Apostolicae Sedis." But her animosity toward religion is ecumenical; describing President Bush's stem-cell speech, she says, "In a country founded on separation of church and state, it is not clear why it is prayer that should guide an American president to policy decisions about bioscience."

Similarly, Maienschein praises the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade and offers positive words for abortion activists while describing opponents of abortion as intransigent potential murderers, a group that holds "their particular values as absolute and immutable, without possibility of compromise" and that has "become more vocal and even violent." Although she praises bioethicists like Arthur Caplan, whose views she shares, she impugns those she does not. "Theologians-turned-bioethicists" are deemed "not seriously willing to engage in reflection about the difficult challenges of sorting out right and wrong," and Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, is dismissed as someone who "relies heavily on his own intuitions, on his assumptions that our intuitions will match his and that if they do not match there is something wrong with us."

In "Whose View of Life?" Maienschein founders primarily because the lessons she draws from history are too freighted with her own political views, and her bias in contemporary debates is too thorough to allow a fair-minded discussion of embryo research, stem-cell research, and cloning. As a result, her recommendations for how we can better grapple with these difficult issues fall flat. Her constant refrain--"Nature evolves, science evolves, social attitudes evolve, and our responses should be expected to evolve"--should be answered: Yes, they do. But not always for the better.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and author of "Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement," forthcoming in January.