Donna Dickenson has written a highly accessible guide to the ethical implications of biotechnology for the well-designed and edited “All that Matters” series from the British publisher Hodder Education. Pitched to a general audience, Bioethics features lively chapter titles – "Girls! Sell your eggs and enjoy the nightlife of Chennai," "Snowflakes, techno-coolies and the Tooth Fairy: some wonders of stem cell science." But it also delves into pithy questions about the limits of science, the problems raised by the patenting of genes, the corrosive role of the profit motive in medicine, and the injustices spawned by reproductive technologies, among others.
Dickenson, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of London and winner of the prestigious International Spinoza Lens Award in 2006, situates her discussion of biotechnology primarily against a backdrop of justice, asking how the field promotes or undermines social equality. She also considers the more troubling prospect that biotechnology will usher in "the demise of nature" by making fundamental and irreversible changes in organisms (and ecosystems).
Repeatedly, Dickenson combats biotechnologists’ facile claims that they only serve the public good by pointing to the ways in which money and personal ambition change the equation. She also effectively confronts arguments – often put forward by scientists and pro-science journalists – that criticisms of biotechnology invariably constitute fear-mongering. As Dickenson rightly points out, public participation in decision making is a necessary counterweight to corporate and other problematic institutional forces. Moreover, she gives multiple examples of how poor women especially are exploited in the global market for eggs and wombs.
Within chapters of Bioethics, case studies, definitions of terms, and descriptions of medical techniques provide helpful detail and clarification. A helpful addendum, "100 Ideas," provides suggestions for further readings; summaries of landmark court rulings; brief descriptions of films and literary works dealing with bioethics; and lists of websites, think tanks and activist organizations, and leading thinkers in the field.
Dickensen defuses jargon and makes history compelling. We are, after all, just people trying to understand the complex circumstances of our own lives, and if some physician asks us if he can use our blood or suck eggs from our ovaries (what would that process involve, exactly?) or sample our DNA, we’d like to know how to make such decisions in terms we understand. Dickenson supplies those terms, and more. She helps us understand how individual medical choices become, in an age of Big Data and automated DNA sequencing and transnational markets for our biological essence – what Dickenson terms "body shopping" – a matter of public concern. What happens in the "privacy" of a clinic can lead to disquieting trends that have major implications for all of us, such as transnational surrogacy or the exploitation for corporate profit of the genetic material of ethnic groups.
Dickenson also asks us to move beyond our conventional understandings of what, after all, prove to be non-conventional acts. Biotechnology has ushered in choices that no human has previously been afforded – or, as some might say, given the opportunity to make. How do we weigh our own self regard against larger social and species concerns? Whose baby is this? What could scientists’ goals today mean for generations to come? Dickenson endorses the view, as expressed by Richard Hayes of the Center for Genetics and Society, that biotechnology in all its forms should "support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity, and the common good."
Full disclosure: I was unaware when I volunteered to review this book that it included a quote of one of my blog posts. That fact in no way influenced the character of my review.
Gina Maranto is Co-Director of Ecosystem Science and Policy and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Policy program at the University of Miami's Leonard and Jayne Abess Center. She is the author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings (1996).
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Arts & Culture, Assisted Reproduction, Bioethics, Egg Retrieval, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Personal genomics, Public Opinion, Sequencing & Genomics, Stem Cell Research, Surrogacy, Synthetic Biology
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