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How liberal are American bioethicists?

by | May 10, 2024

By Michael Cook

There is growing acknowledgement of the fact that the backgrounds, ideas, and politics of American academics are out of step with the backgrounds, ideas and politics of the American public. “Tenured and tenure-track college professors are drawn from a narrow and idiosyncratic slice of society,” writes Musa al-Gharbi, a journalism professor at Stony Brook University. “Many backgrounds and perspectives are dramatically underrepresented in the academy.”

In a forthcoming book, Al-Gharbi lists the differences. Academics are 30% less likely to be Christian; 131% more likely to be left-leaning; 60% more likely to be LGBTQ; and 55% more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.

How about bioethicists?

A fascinating study in the American Journal of Bioethics suggests that their profession might be even less representative than academics as a whole. It was written by bioethicists – some affiliated with Harvard University, one of the most liberal institutions in the country:

Nearly 80% of bioethicists in our sample identify as white alone, while only 64% of American adults do. Bioethicists are also whiter than academics generally, a group that more closely resembles the U.S. population: 61% of tenure-track academics are white, while 74% of tenured faculty are. A majority of respondents hold a PhD or other professional degree, likely reflecting bioethics job requirements. Notably, respondents also hail from educated families. In the United States, only 14% of people have completed an advanced degree, including a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree; however, 62% of respondents in our sample have at least one parent with an advanced degree.

The bioethicists in our sample are overwhelmingly liberal (87%), while only a small fraction identify as moderate or conservative; by contrast, only 25% of Americans self-describe as liberal, while 37% self-describe as moderate, and 36% identify as conservative.

… bioethicists are less religious than members of the U.S. public, and their religious backgrounds differ. In our sample, just under half of the bioethicists report belonging to an organized religion; by contrast, more than three-quarters of Americans consider themselves a member of an organized religion. Moreover, in our sample, 14% of bioethicists identify as Jewish, 15% identify as Protestant, and 14% identify as Catholic; of Americans, only 2.5% identify as Jewish, while 47% identify as Protestant, and 21% identify as Catholic. In our sample, 13 and 18% of respondents identify as agnostic or atheist, respectively; of Americans, 4% identify as agnostic and 3% identify as atheist.

How about their opinions on bioethical controversies? On assisted dying, US bioethicists are roughly in sync with the public – about 60% support it. On abortion, bioethicists are “overwhelmingly” in favour, more so than the public, of which more than half supports abortion to some degree.

Editor’s note. This appeared at BioEdge and reposted with permission.

Categories: Bioethics