As we come to the end of the first tenth of the 21st century, pundits are making lists about the decade just past: the biggest stories, the worst movies. In that spirit, here’s a list of the top ten stories in bioethics.
This isn’t an idle exercise. Bioethics matters. The field exerts tremendous influence over the most important questions of public policy and moral values: How should we treat the most vulnerable and dependent among us? What makes us human? Indeed, is it even morally relevant that one is human? Trends in bioethics, thus, illuminate where we are as a society and the nature of the culture we are creating for our progeny.
10: The ascendance of an anti-human environmentalism. Deep ecology, the most radical expression of environmentalism, maintains that human beings are the world’s enemy — the AIDS of the Earth, as one advocate put it — and that saving the planet will require depopulating the Earth to under 1 billion. It is easy to dismiss such misanthropy as the radical fringe. Alas, during the last decade, vocal and unapologetic support for draconian depopulation has become a part of the environmental mainstream, and is now almost universal within the global-warming movement. China’s one-child policy is not considered anathema by many global-warming alarmists, and is even extolled by influential leaders. The head of the U.K. Green party, Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the U.K. government’s Sustainable Development Commission, said that curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming. Radical environmentalism appears to have morphed into anti-humanism, the result of which could be a new impetus for eugenics and radical population control.9. The growth of biological colonialism.
Desperate and destitute people are increasingly being exploited for their body parts and functions. For example, a black market has developed in human organs, in which well-off Westerners avoid transplant waiting lists by traveling to countries such as India, Bangladesh, or Turkey to purchase kidneys. The exploitation got so out of hand in the Philippines that the government was forced to outlaw organ-transplant surgery for non-citizens. Matters were even worse in China, where it was credibly charged that prisoners — perhaps practitioners of Falun Gong — were executed and their organs sold.
Organ buying wasn’t the only growth sector in biological colonialism. The Daily Mail reported that women in Ukraine were being paid to get pregnant and have abortions to create stem cells for use in beauty treatments; the BBC reported the practice might even include infanticide. Poor women in India are renting their wombs to rich women for gestation, and some Westerners are buying Indian IVF embryos because it is cheaper than having them made at home.
8. The increase in American pro-life attitudes. In the last decade, polling showed a dramatic increase in the number of people who identify themselves as pro-life. For example, in 2000, a Gallup poll found that 48 percent of respondents were “pro-choice” and 43 percent “pro-life.” In 2009, those numbers had more than reversed, with a majority identifying as pro-life (51 percent) and only 42 percent pro-choice. These changed attitudes were reflected in public policy, for example the passage of the federal ban on partial-birth abortion and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. If this trend continues, it could eventually shake the Roe regimen off its foundation.
7. The struggle over Obamacare. The political brouhaha over Obamacare was the bioethics story of 2009, not only in the U.S. but throughout much of the developed world. The strong victory of Obamacare opponents in the political debate — which may not prevent the bill’s becoming law — demonstrated that the majority of Americans do not want European-style health care, nor, for that matter, health-care rationing (thus the resonance of Sarah Palin’s “death panel” remark). The debate will not end with the passage or failure of a bill, and health-care reform will likely be one of the most important stories of the coming decade.
6. Legalization of assisted suicide in Washington. Though some thought it inevitable, legalized assisted suicide faced very rough sledding after Oregon passed its breakthrough law in 1994. After many years of failure, in 2008, an abundantly financed initiative campaign, fronted and partially paid for by a popular ex-governor, finally succeeded in Washington. Interestingly, as soon as the law went into effect, so did the pushback: Many Washington doctors and health-care systems publicly opted out of participation. A month later, a Montana trial judge declared a constitutional right to assisted suicide; the Montana supreme court eventually vacated the decision, but also ruled it legal under the living-will law for doctors to write lethal prescriptions for their terminally ill patients. Then, in 2009, the old stalemate reemerged, with legislatures in states as widespread as Hawaii, Arizona, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New Hampshire refusing to follow Washington’s lead. Still, the Washington victory boosted the morale of assisted-suicide activists, who promise to wage an energetic legalization campaign in the coming decade.