"Get out of the way." So said the European colonists as they pushed indigenous Africans, Americans, Aborigines, and Maoris off their own lands to make way for Christianity, urbanization, Western medicine, industry, capitalism, railroads, and global warming. And so says Dr. Pinker on behalf of biomedicine, stating what, in his view, should be the "primary moral goal" for bioethics.
"Biomedical research," he writes, "promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing." To him, ethics is but a horsefly dogging the progress of the potent, muscular thoroughbred of biomedicine—an annoying obstacle bogging down life-saving research in "red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as 'dignity,' 'sacredness,' or 'social justice.'" If he and other scientific cheerleaders had their way, not only regulation of medical research but even serious discussion weighing potential harms and benefits would vanish, so that the researchers could get on with their task of saving the world.
Pinker's Panglossian paean notwithstanding, biomedicine, like industrialization, has a mixed legacy. Industrialization has brought improvements in public health and quality of life, reduction of death and suffering, and profound creativity and culture. But it has also led to the destruction of cultures and ecosystems, pollution, and climate change. Further, it has increased some forms of suffering—through, for example, sweatshops, child labor, and occupational disease and injury. Industrialists, too, like to cry "Get out of the way!" to regulators who think beyond the short term.
In support of his argument Pinker invokes nebulous but sweeping principles such as health, flourishing, suffering, disability, harm, and effective treatment—all terms with real but complex meanings that shift with time, context, and geography. A few decades ago, biomedicine considered homosexuality a mental disorder demanding treatment; today such a view is a barbarism. Until the 1970s, deafness was considered a severe disability demanding segregation and rehabilitation; today, the Deaf community has a vibrant and distinctive culture and genetic counselors sometimes help deaf couples increase their chances of having a deaf child.
And of course, the mother of all examples—the root of modern bioethics—is the Nuremberg trials, in which distinguished German physicians were charged with war crimes for carrying out unfettered human experimentation. With all ethical principles pushed out of the way, Nazi doctors were free to subject their "patients" to atrocities, often carefully controlled and carried out according to established principles of the scientific method—but against all norms of humanity.
But one need not Godwin the discussion to find examples of the value of regulation and ethical discussion of biomedical research. When ethicists got in the way, the decades-long Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis was finally halted, in 1972. When the historian Susan Reverby got in the way in 2010, she unearthed evidence of the deliberate infection of Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea in the 1940s. When regulators got in the way in 2000, retroviral gene therapy experiments were temporarily halted, reining in the biomedical cowboys and doubtless saving the lives of patients like Jesse Gelsinger, the teenager who died mysteriously in a routine gene therapy experiment. When ethical discussion got in the way, William Halsted's radical mastectomy procedure for breast cancer—a life-saving, state-of-the-art technique in the early 1900s—was scaled back, preserving much more of the patient's tissue without sacrificing survivorship. When ethical discussion got in the way, the use of sentient animals such as chimpanzees and dogs in vivisection experiments was reduced or eliminated.
There's no denying that biomedicine has brought about many benefits to society. Even if its contributions were limited to antibiotics and anaesthesia, it would be a heroic, potent, and noble discipline. But with great power comes the potential for abuse. Biomedicine's promise for reducing suffering and improving our lives can only be maximized if research takes place in a context of reflection, deliberation, and regulation. Thinking these complex issues through takes time, and impatient researchers may become frustrated at times. Fidget away, Dr. Pinker.
Humanistic debate can help identify potential harm in research practice: critical ethicists and historians deliberately get in harm’s way to spare harm to others. The more powerful biomedicine becomes, the more we need critical discourse to keep its technical advances in humane perspective.
—Nathaniel Comfort is Professor of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is The Science of Human Perfection.
Previously on Biopolitical Times: