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Le Mythe Bioéthique
  1. Mette Lebech
  1. National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co Kildare, Ireland

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    Edited by Gérard Mémeteau and Lucien Israël, Paris, Bassano, 1999, 192 pages, 132 FF.

    What is bioethics? For those involved in the study or the teaching of bioethics this question is a fundamental one. This book proposes a series of possible answers to this question, converging on the idea that bioethics is a myth.

    As a whole, the book is a response to the so-called French “bioethical” laws (1994) and to the “bioethics” they propagate. It is therefore, for the French-reading English-speaker, a good introduction to these and to the debates around them.

    Gérard Mémeteau, professor of law and director of the newly established Centre de Droit Médical at the University of Poitiers, documents in his article on the one hand the inconsistencies of the French legal approach, and on the other his own regret at being forced to admit these inconsistencies. Reluctantly, he concludes that the traditional concept of the human being, subject of positive law, is, despite the affirmation of “respect for the human being from the beginning of its life”, betrayed in the concrete norms glossing over the existence of human embryos. In so far as this is precisely what the laws propagate as “bioethics”, he calls it an imposture.

    But is bioethics an imposture? This is strong language for naming what is commonly taken to be a discipline. The book in fact introduces itself as being against bioethics. Is it really? Mémeteau's point of view is nuanced, by being seconded on the one hand by Christian Byk, judge and vice president of the Council for the International Organisation of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), and on the other by Dominique Folsheid, professor of philosophy at the University of Marne-la-Vallé. Whereas Byk is more positive in his approach towards bioethics, Folsheid regards it not simply as “une imposture”, but—yes—as a “monster”.

    Byk writes: “Bioethics does not explain and does not categorize the phenomena. It analyses and discusses them, it confronts them with our knowledge as well as with our faith. It trains us to exercise freedom and responsibility, we who are ethically incomplete precisely because ethics is part of our history and our perspectives. Then, stripped of misunderstandings and beyond fashion, bioethics can, like secularity, be a place of dynamic confrontation of points of view. Not so that one triumphs over another, but so that we gain a clear view of the order of things which we initiate by our doing and which in turn will mould our actions.” (My translation.)

    To Byk, bioethics—a field in which he has been a professional expert—is not a branch of study in any traditional way, like biology, sociology or philosophy. His experience underwrites his ability to analyse the nature of the expertise required, an expertise which he keeps at an ironic distance. He sees the ethics committee, so frequently appealed to as the last resort, as the melting pot of several existing orders: deontology, law, and social practice, or simply as the pot where all kinds of existing order melt, and whose standardised product is consensus. The expert is the one who knows how to produce the product sought. And, after all, is the product so very bad? Byk ends on a more positive note than Mémeteau.

    Dominique Folsheid, on the other hand, is positively horrified. Folsheid saluted bioethics in its coming from across the Atlantic, as though it was the salvation of academic philosophy, and in particular of ethics. Welcoming what he thought to be a carrier pigeon, he woke up to having opened his arms to a bat—a chimera with wings like a dove and fur like a rat. Aye, the creature would flap its wings in proof of spirituality—it was after all “ethics”—and display its fur too, to convince “the inhabitants of the american caves” that it was, like them, delightfully beastly—it was “bio-” as well. It would refuse to determine itself as either an ethics of biology or a biology of ethics and remain unclassifiable as anything else but a living claim to be what it in fact comes to devour.

    The dramatic language of Folsheid produces a brilliant piece of sarcasm, weird enough to become a classic in—oh well!—bioethics.

    The politicians Bernard Sellier and Christine Boutin both contribute their perspective on “bioethics”. Actors in the process which, against their will, has made “bioethics” a part of the Code Civile, their keen retrospective criticism also allows us to look forward. The frustration which comes across as a violent appeal must point in the direction opposite to the controlled pluralistic ideology of “la pensée unique”, which makes of bioethics the new framework of a totalitarian populism. The contributions of Jean-Francois Poisson, Michel Schooyans and Lucien Israël reinforce the impression of a book against “bioethics”. But what alternative is offered? Beyond polemics, it is both simpler and more complex than bioethics: it is ethics.