letters | the bioethics battleground

Pace of research should not barrel ahead of ethical safeguards

Steven Pinker’s opinion that the “primary moral goal for today’s bioethics” should be to “get out of the way” of science, which implies that ethics and science are by nature at odds, is dangerous and ill-informed (“The moral imperative for bioethics,” Opinion, Aug. 1).

We don’t have to look to fiction, or back 70 years to the Nazi experiments, to find evidence that science unfettered by ethics is bad science. Bad science delays development of effective treatments and damages public trust in the research enterprise, resulting in the same costs to human health that Pinker decries.

He notes that “we already have ample safeguards” for the protection of people who volunteer to participate in scientific research. Yet he fails to acknowledge that those safeguards reflect the very ethical principles — respect, minimizing risk of harm, and fairness — that he dismisses as “nebulous.” Of course, it was ethicists, not scientists, who formulated these principles, which not only guide emerging research but protect it from ad hoc criticism.


Our ethical oversight system may be imperfect, but that’s not a reason to jettison ethical examination of new scientific developments. To foster advances in biomedicine, we need a more nuanced discussion about the relationship between ethics and science than Pinker offers.

Alexander M. Capron, chairman, board of directors

Elisa A. Hurley, executive director

Dr. David H. Strauss

Chairman, Public policy committee

Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research