When the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine announced that it had created human embryos specifically for research purposes, it talked up the a priori endorsement of three separate panels of bioethicists. And at congressional hearings on stem-cell research and again on cloning, bioethicists both raised questions and calmed fears about the new technologies.
Bioethicist has certainly entered the American vocabulary, but its meaning remains murky. Classically speaking, an ethicist is a specialist in ethics, which, our dictionary says, is "a set of principles of right conduct; a theory or a system of moral values." A bioethicist would then be someone who applies principles of right conduct to the advancing borders of medical and biotechnical science. It seems, however, that few actually speak in that prophetic voice, while many are in danger of becoming priests who bless the moneyed interests who pay their bills.
This new priestly prominence of bioethicists came in two waves. First came new questions that went beyond what physicians and patients were prepared to face during the medical innovations of the 1960s and 1970s. When shall we unplug a comatose patient? Who best qualifies to benefit from scarce kidney dialysis machines? A group of thinkers emerged, willing to address new situations of life and death, scarcity and need.
Second came the public relations. Frightened by the passionate (and at times irrational) European reactions to genetically engineered foods, the biotech industry decided to prepare the public for developments in stem-cell research and cloning. And so companies such as Geron pioneered the formation of corporate bioethics advisory boards.
As Vicki Brower told it in a 1999 BioSpace article, "Biotechs Embrace ...1