Are bioethicists a "priestly caste"?

Michael Cook
18 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Is bioethics compatible with democracy? This is not a question that surfaces very often in policy debates featuring prestigious bioethicists. However, in a provocative column in The Guardian, Nathan Emmerich, a young bioethicist, asks whether bioethicists are turning into a priestly caste:

"In a secular age it might seem that the time for moral authorities has passed. However, research in the life sciences and biomedicine has produced a range of moral concerns and prompted the emergence of bioethics; an area of study that specialises in the ethical analysis of these issues. The result has been the emergence of what we might call expert bioethicists, a cadre of professionals who, while logical and friendly, have, nevertheless, been ordained as secular priests.

"This suggestion - that there are expert bioethicists - might appear to have profoundly anti-democratic implications. Indeed handling expertise, including scientific expertise, is a central difficulty for democratic societies and its extension into the realm of moral values seems, on the face of it, to compound the problem. Nevertheless the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has constantly made use of expert bioethicists and two members of the recently convened Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee (ESBAC) are listed as "bioethics specialists"…

"Expert bioethicists cannot allow themselves to become a priestly caste. They must engage with the public and, in doing so, become more fully engaged by and with their concerns. Bioethics must become part of the drive to make science public and part of the politics of scientific expertise."