Bio-Liberal, or Freedom of Self-Determination

May 17, 2011 by Lydia Allen

I have now reached the end of my course on Human Enhancements and we have discussed many ethical positions concerning the ways that the biomedical sciences will provide people with many choices for biological enhancement. We have asked about whether or not people should be allowed to enhance themselves, or whether or not parents should be allowed to enhance their children. We have asked about enhancements and sports– whether it is fair for a person to enhance himself to gain a competitive edge, and how such things could be regulated. We have asked questions concerning the line between enhancements and therapies, and how funding of research is affected by the enhancement/ therapeutic distinction. We have asked how enhancements will affect the socio-economic classes, and whether enhancements (especially cognitive enhancements) will widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

In exploring all of these questions, we have read the works of philosophers who fall on both sides of the liberal-conservative line.  I have found myself often lining up with the more liberal stances because, for me, the questions bear strongly on matters of self-determination, and I’m inclined toward giving people the freedom to make decisions for themselves because I see biological matters as private issues that policy makers should respect, and I’m especially disinclined to agree with conservative policy makers who would restrict my freedom of self-determination because of their religious preferences. Last time I checked, I was guaranteed the right to live according to my conscience as per the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and this includes choices I may make regarding my body.

To be fair, I do not expect the public to fund research that strictly has applications for enhancement, nor do I expect insurance companies to pay for enhancements either. This position brings me to a sticky conundrum, though. For as much as I believe that I should have the freedom to enhance my body as I see fit, I worry that the competitive edge that such enhancements might bring for those who can afford it may cause people who cannot afford it even more of a disadvantage in our society.

Cognitive enhancements are especially worrisome to me because intelligence is often pointed out as a protective factor against poverty and for positive coping skills when a person experiences traumatic situations.  While not always the case, people born into extreme poverty may experience the trauma that I am mentioning here because of the violence that goes on in poor neighborhoods, and that is on top of the fact that malnourishment affects brain development and the worrisome fact that poor neighborhoods have poor schools with substandard educational opportunities for these kids.

So, while I’m in support of the freedom that people should have to self-determination when it comes to their bodies, I’m also in favor of reforming the ways in which poor children are given brain health support in our current system. Of course, biomedical advancements are not required to begin this process of reform– better schools (with free breakfast/lunch/ after school meals provided to children of impoverished parents) would be a start. But if there does come a day that cognitive enhancements can influence the brain functioning of a person, then I would be in favor of society (either through NGOs or government-run health services) providing poor people access to these technologies if they choose to utilize them– the key word here being “choose.”