What is Bioconservatism?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Bioconservatism is a social, political, and moral stance that urges regulation and relinquishment of biotechnologies regarded by bioconservatives as dangerous, dehumanizing, or immoral. Common targets of regulation include the genetic modification (genetic engineering) of crops and animals (including humans), preimplantation genetic diagnosis, both therapeutic and reproductive cloning, stem cells, and human enhancement including radical life extension and cognitive modification. Bioconservatism is sometimes regarded as a "third dimension" of political orientation, along with the more conventional dimensions of social and economic liberalism/conservatism.

A scientist works in a research lab.
A scientist works in a research lab.

What is distinctly unusual about bioconservatism is how it emerges from two groups that otherwise disagree about practically everything: religious conservatives and liberal environmentalists. Among religious conservatives, bioconservatism is best symbolized by the former President Bush's President's Council on Bioethics and its founding chairman, Leon Kass. Throughout its existence, Bush's President's Council on Bioethics has published papers and books arguing against the application of new biotechnologies such as stem cells, cloning, life extension, and human enhancement. The most prominent liberal environmentalist bioconservative group is the Center for Genetics and Society, based in Oakland, California. Both the President's Council on Bioethics and the Center for Genetics and Society were founded in 2001 in response to new developments in biotechnology. These groups argue that these new technologies are inhumane, unwholesome, and in some cases violate human dignity and the meaning of life.

The contrasting view to bioconservatism is technoprogressivism or transhumanism. Transhumanists and technoprogressive groups, like the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, primarily an online organization, argue that new biotechnologies should be adopted cautiously. They compare modern bioconservatism to historic discomfort about the dissection of cadavers, vaccination, blood donations, in vitro fertilization, and the use of contraception. According to these groups, novel biotechnologies will be adopted whether or not they are outlawed in individual jurisdictions, so it makes sense to prepare for their arrival by thinking carefully about the ethics involved.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - That argument works on the assumption that humans aren't capable of choosing a better path. That we should throw away any technological advantage that might be misused. If we did that, we would have to throw away all of our technology.

All of these techniques can be used to prevent tragedy and have already done so. They can prevent babies being conceived with debilitating conditions, and farmers from losing all their crops to disease and drought. I don't think we should turn away from these things just because they might be misused.


@pleonasm - I think bioconservatism is at its best when it's fighting against technology that builds a chasm between the rich and the poor. Agricultural monopolies is one example, but I think a lot of people blame that on a particular company that acts almost cartoonishly evil.

I think it goes deeper than that, and there's just no way that this can be done equitably in the current economic atmosphere. Take genetic diagnosis for example. This is where people get to decide all the traits of their unborn children.

Even if you don't think this is a crime against god or nature, it will very quickly cement an actual biological difference between the rich and the poor, because only the rich will be able to afford it.

We'll end up having a permanent class divide with an underclass that will never have a hope of competing against their biological superiors. It's a disgusting idea and I hope we never see it happen.


I can definitely get behind some of this, although I guess I'm coming from a more liberal point of view. I just don't think that we will ever be able to know all the consequences of messing around with a genome. There have already been disastrous repercussions, such as plants that have become so-called superweeds, after being bred to be resistant to herbicides.

There is just too much scope for corporations to run rough-shod all over the little farmer and to rush into making terrible decisions for the sake of a little bit of profit.

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