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Book Review: Experiments in Democracy - Human Embryo Research and the Politics of Bioethics

15 May 2017
Appeared in BioNews 900

Experiments in Democracy: Human Embryo Research and the Politics of Bioethics

By Benjamin Hurlbut

Published by Columbia University Press

ISBN-10: 0231179545, ISBN-13: 978-0231179546

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Experiments in Democracy recounts the history of human embryo research debates in the United States while exploring how the democratic formulation of policy is impacted by complex relationships between science, bioethics, and the public.

The book is written by Ben Hurlbut, assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, who researches intersections of science, technology, bioethics, and political theory.

Hurlbut takes the reader through a thoroughly-researched chronological history of human embryo research in the United States from the 1960s to the present, highlighting some of the big technological events that sparked significant questions about human embryo research: the birth of Louise Brown and the advent of  IVF (in vitro fertilisation), the cloning of Dolly the sheep, and the beginning of human embryonic stem cell culture.

In the introduction, Hurlbut writes a question that 'transcended the technoscientific possibilities of the moment'. How should a democratic polity reason on human life? 'Through what institutional mechanisms, guided by what forms of authority, in what language, and subject to what political norms and limitations?' he asks.

The book's title, Experiments in Democracy, refers to how the concept of right public reason and policy development evolves amid these exercises of language, expert knowledge, and authority.

As one example, when ethics committees were debating the ethics of human embryo treatment, an essential question that needed to be addressed was, what is an embryo? Is it an organism that exists at fertilisation, or implantation? Did scientists alone possess the authority to define what an embryo was? How did the biological facts influence the moral reasoning of bioethicists? From the mid-1960s on, Hurlbut shows how ethics committees would often look to science to define the biological facts for debates about the human embryo, then use the biological facts to help make their moral inferences. This then sets the stage for the tendency to elevate science as the ultimate value-neutral source of knowledge for reasoning about policy, which can have the effect of silencing public voices that disagree with or do not understand the 'knowledge' endorsed by science.

Hurlbut examines many other concepts and technologies in similar depth, including 'natural' human reproduction, in vitro fertilisation, human embryo cloning, and human embryo stem cell research. The book ends with a chapter called 'The Legacy of the Experiment' which mentions other events on the human embryo research timeline from the late 2000s to the present, before turning to conclusions. Hurlbut's central concluding thought is that the 'American imaginations' of right, democratic reasoning about bioscience and technology debates came to give scientific authority a privileged position to set the parameters of bioscience and technology debates.

Beyond this central thought, I actually found myself getting a bit lost in his final chapter as his lines of analysis were reviewed and his thoughts on the future were explored, because the conclusion (as well as the book as a whole) was rich with information that was interconnected in complex ways. I wouldn't say that Hurlbut’s analysis was impossible to understand; more that it was dense and may require careful reading or a second review to truly take it all in.

The introduction and outline of sociological methodology at first made me feel like I may have strayed too far from my knowledge-base to fully understand the content, but I found that the rest of the book was quite accessible, and that any hugely foreign or discipline-specific concepts were defined and explained to the reader. However, the frequent use of imposing words like 'ontological' and 'a priori' will remind the reader that this book comes from an academic research project.

Overall, I believe that this book is more than capable of educating and keeping the attention of academic or professional readers interested in social science perspectives of the interactions between policy development, political science, bioethics, and science, as well as readers simply looking to learn about the history of embryo research in the United States.

For me, I thought the book was impactful by causing me to question the role that authorities play in the policy-making progress, especially the role of science. Is it a good thing that science critiques and polices public reasoning while being immune to being critiqued by the public, or could it be a good thing to open up science to public scrutiny? Amid the possible pros and cons, what would overall be the best way to treat scientific authority in a democracy?

Buy Experiments in Democracy: Human Embryo Research and the Politics of Bioethics from Amazon UK.

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