Thursday, January 24, 2008

'Professional' and other interests

A low-profile discussion has recently taken place on the Letters page of the TIMES newspaper in the UK. Initially a number of top-flight scientists, including Nobel Laureates, argued that the current draft of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is flawed in that it prevents 'the generation of embryos (up to 14 days) in such research by the use of cells for which the donors did not, or could not, give specific consent.' Their point is that such research is of vital importance if we wish to 'increas[e] knowledge about the causes and potential treatment of serious, incurable degenerative conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and motor neurone disease.' The trouble is that 'many existing cell and tissue samples and cell lines were donated, for any research purpose, by patients (now untraceable) with particular diseases, before this sort of research was even imagined. These cells have been well characterised over many years, or have unique properties and may therefore be the best samples to use for the derivation of embryonic stem cells. Such stem cell lines would be of great value in understanding how diseases develop, as well in the search for therapies.'

One can be persuaded by such arguments or not, this isn't actually the point that I am concerned about. The scientists who signed this letter pretty much constitute the international leaders in stem cell research. Still, people might think that there are good ethical reasons for not utilising genetic material donated by people for any kind of research purposes for this sort of research without the explicit consent of the donors. I don't see any serious ethical issues if someone gives an open-ended type of consent, agreeing at some point that his or her genetic materials may be used for any kind of research.

A day later, also in the TIMES, another letter appeared. The letter was critical of the scientists views. Read it yourself to decide whether or not you find it convincing. As I said, this is not really of concern to me for the purpose of this commentary. What bothers me about this letter is its writers desperate attempt to add authority to their (otherwise probably weak) arguments. The writers are actually driven by strong Christian beliefs, beliefs that they fail to mention in their letter. So, they're not saying, 'as a Christian, it is my view that'. No, they're describing themselves as 'individuals with a professional interest' in bioethics. So, unlike the scientists who clearly are professionals providing a professional opinion, here we have a bunch of folks who try to make us think that they are professionals, while really they have a 'professional interest'. Well, what's a professional interest, I wonder? They certainly don't have this interest as professionals, as most of them are philosophers, and in any case, they claim a professional interest in bioethics. So, what's that? Are they saying that they have no professional competence in bioethics but that they are otherwise professionals who are interested in bioethics? If that was the case, surely the 'respect for authority' demanding introductory line would have been pointless. If, on the other hand, they're suggesting that they have a kind of bioethical professional authority, akin to the professional competence the scientists have, they would be plain wrong. Bioethicists, much like philosophers and politicians are not professionals by any sensible interpretation of this term. They don't meet the most basic criteria of what constitutes a professional. One of the writers even refers to himself as Director of Research at some Scottish Bioethics Council. You might want to look for his 'professional' or other qualifications in bioethics (say a doctorate), or peer reviewed publications in academic journals (as opposed to in-house publications of his 'Council'). I think the Council is just another tool in the armament of our 'authority' demanding writers' group. It has not published a single research report that would have made it into the academic literature. For all intent and purposes it is non-existent. Another of the contributors directs a Christian bioethics think tank (conveniently forgetting to add the descriptor Christian to its name). Main main point is this: The 'professional interest in bioethics' crowd is very much an emperor who happens to be naked...

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