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What Happened to Bioethics? 

Yuval Levin

Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, bioethics was a prominent national issue, and an active and intensely contested political question. In 1998, human cloning was much on the agenda, with Dolly the sheep having been cloned not long before and the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans both eager for some boundaries — even if they didn’t quite agree on what those ought to be. In 2008, we were coming off of eight years of intense debate about federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, a debate that involved high-stakes politics, a prime-time presidential speech to the country, a veto by President Bush of a bill a Republican Congress had sent him, and a politicization of the case for biomedical research of a sort we had never seen before.

Such intense focus on bioethics seems almost strange now. At the very least, public interest has faded a lot. But in order to think about why, and about what lessons we can learn about where things stand today, we might recall a couple of facets of that unusual period of intense focus on bioethics, particularly the stem cell debate in the first decade of this century.

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Yuval Levin, a New Atlantis senior editor, is the editor of National Affairs, the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the author, most recently, of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (Basic Books, 2016). This essay, portions of which have been adapted from his book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (New Atlantis Books, 2008), is based on a lecture delivered in May 2018 at Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Yuval Levin, "What Happened to Bioethics?," The New Atlantis, Number 56, Summer/Fall 2018, pp. 92-97.