Making the Facts of Life
Observatory Director Sheila Jasanoff identifies that the processes of making sense of ambiguous biological entities—like human embryos—are also political processes that settle questions of ethical responsibility toward these entities. These processes draw on established national scripts for ordering the relationship between science and politics. She characterizes the formulation of the 14-day rule as an act of “ontological surgery” that drew a line at two weeks between the nonhuman and human as research subject. Jasanoff details how the drawing of this line came to be accepted among the public, contesting simple univocal explanations that scientific research interests prevailed or that bioethics successfully stepped in to settle the matter. Instead, she identifies a key “bioconstitutional moment” in the British House of Lords in which Mary Warnock compellingly claimed that a pre-embryo/embryo distinction should be made on the basis of a distinctive Anglican Protestant appeal to divine wisdom. She contrasts this act of ontological surgery with the different bioconstitutional orders of Germany and the US, whose surgical techniques included taking up hardline moral and legal principles and deferring to the market, respectively. These arrangements of science, politics, and ethics that determine the acceptable scope of research are context-dependent achievements that also set precedents for future ontological surgeries. In the US, the division between public and private created by its market delegation has resulted in a large role for ethics committees in future decisions of ontological and moral clarification.