Professor considers biotechnology ethics
Inspired by the ethical concerns surrounding the field of biotechnology —which includes stem cell research, a Harvard University professor explored what it means to be a human, animal or embryo.
Sheila Jasanoff, professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, explored biotechnology and Tuesday during the Center for Cultural Analysis’s open discussion in Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.
“It seems like the studies of biotechnology are a great place to ask questions about why we believe the kinds of things we do, as well as what kinds of imaginations we want to construct around those things,” Jasanoff said.
Stem cell research, long-debated by scientists, politicians and activists, is one of the most pivotal issues of biotechnology, but the conflict over its consequences are affected by the many conflicting positions that have come out in recent times, Jasanoff said.
“The problem is that we have many different definitions about what is involved [in stem cell research],” she said. “Some definitions divorces images of stem cells from people, while others blur the distinctions.”
Jasanoff said politicians mistakenly attempt to appeal to the different kinds of stem cell definitions. As a result, legislators decision-making process and may not match up with the opinions of experts.
“Here you have a discrepancy, because ethicists are still debating whether [these practices] are wrong, but in politics you resolve a debate that has not been settled in philosophical terms,” she said.
These differences in viewpoints among cultures can be reduced to differences in the way that governments have handled scientific issues in the past, she said.
“In the U.S., the constitutional status requires science to be somewhere else apart from politics,” Jasanoff said. “In the U.K., science is the vocabulary of politics because it is everywhere.”
She said the United States was founded without a major focus on the relationship between science and the institutions of government.
“The word ‘science’ only appears once in the Constitution,” she said.
Concerns about the advancements of biotechnology have prompted one organization to produce the Genetic Bill of Rights, a decision that could potentially raise controversy, Jasanoff said.
“The question — ‘who gave this organization the right to speak on behalf of all people’ — is already a starting point of inquiry,” she said.
Jasanoff said she believes the image of a chimera, a mythical creature made up of parts from multiple animals, is appropriate in understanding how biotechnology will break the boundaries between our different beliefs.
“I think chimeras force us to think about classifications simply because, in their nature, they disrupt existing classificatory characteristics,” she said.
Sarah Stinard, a University alumna, said she felt the discussion covered a topic that has become especially relevant in today’s culture.
“I definitely feel there is a lot of conversation around about the constitutionality of life, when life begins and the importance of defining that,” she said. “This is a very timely discussion because of the discussions of abortions and the whole Susan G. Komen thing.”
Stinard, who did not know much about the topic before the event, said she enjoyed the way Jasanoff was able to explain some of the more complex ideas involved with the biotechnology field and anticipates similar events in the future.
“I was really impressed with her talk and her presentation,” she said. “I am really interested in the Center of Cultural Analysis, and I’d like to see them bring more people.”
Austin Ashamole, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said the event is important because it covers topics that people are generally unaware about, despite their significance to society. “We are supposed to be the people that push forward the human race, so we are supposed to be more attentive to what goes on in this field,” he said.