A calf is born : a reconstruction of the public debate on animal biotechnology

E. Theune

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    'How should public debates be understood?' is the central question of this study. And it is answered by reconstructing a single public debate, namely the debate about the transgenic bull Herman. Herman the bull was created by Gene Pharming in 1989. An extra gene has been inserted in his genome as to induce the production of lactoferrin in the milk of his daughters. A debate started in the media about whether this should be allowed or not. This media debate has lasted for nine years. In this study the debate is analysed and interpreted in order to make visible for others what has happened during this particular debate. It thus provides handles for disclosing other public debates and for better understanding public debates in general.</p><p>Insight is provided in what has kept this debate going. This media debate, in which the public is involved as an audience, has needed a concrete cause (the case) to develop. This seems to be obvious, but in the Netherlands many debates are being organised without such a case. And one may witness that the media, and so the public, are hardly involved in these organised debates. But not only will a case be needed to induce a public debate. The urge of the debate has to be articulated as well. Virtually everybody can articulate problematic aspects of a case, but for a debate to have impact actors are needed that can provide continuity to the debate. In this particular debate this continuity has been provided by the Dierenbescherming (the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals). But, this still is not enough. If the media are not interested, the public will not know what is going on. So, for a vivid public debate, a case is needed to make the debate urgent, an organisation has to provide continuity, and the media have to publish about it.</p><p>With respect to the content of the debate two discussions can be distinguished: a) the general controversy that has evoked the debate and b) the discussion about several specific applications of this technology.</p><p>ad a) The general controversy. Four general principles are usually mentioned as integrating of the many norms that regulate interpersonal conduct. Two of these are generally reckoned to be applicable to animals as well, to wit 'do not harm' and 'do good'. With respect to the other two principles ('respect for autonomy' and 'be just') people do not agree about whether they apply to animals as well. It is obvious that these last principles cannot be applied directly to animals, as animals are not capable of being autonomous in the sense humans are. This implies for many people that the principle of justice does not apply to animals as well. At least a transformation of these principles is required, but this will alter their content substantially. Respect for autonomy can be transformed into respect for intrinsic value and bodily integrity, and justice can be transformed into equal and fair treatment. The debaters can now be divided into two groups: people that do and people that do not recognise these altered principles as applicable to animals. People that do not recognise these principles will argue in terms of 'do the benefits outweigh the harms' and they will be in favour of a 'yes, if the relevant conditions are met' policy (e.g. Gene Pharming and the biomedical researchers). People that do recognise these principles will either be opponents of animal transgenesis (the Dierenbescherming and some other societal organisations) or will be in favour of a 'no, unless there are good reasons to do so' policy (e.g. the Minister of Agriculture, most animal experts and animal ethicists). They will stress the search for alternatives and will ask for sufficient reasons before they enter a discussion about harms and benefits.</p><p>ad b) Applications and contexts. With respect to the specific case at hand, it turned out that people have been arguing from different values and standards. These values and standards were connected with different practices of animal keeping and using. This has resulted, dependent on the specific applications of the lactoferrin obtained, in a discussion about what kind of animal Herman the bull is. Will his lactating daughters produce milk in the context of dairy cattle farming? Will they be better protected against mastitis, a cattle disease, which would mean that Herman the bull is functioning in a veterinary context? Will they produce medicines like many laboratory animals do, which would refer to a biomedical context? Or will his daughters produce food for patients in a specialised food production context? It turned out that these contexts, which are called practices, imply different standards for the treatment of animals.</p><p>Neither the standards of veterinary practice, nor the standards of cattle farming practice do allow for the production of transgenic cattle. As the production of specialised food was mainly considered from the point of view of ordinary milk production practice, the standards of this practice were applied and so the production of transgenic cattle was rejected. In the case of the production of medicine by way of transgenic cattle, the standards for dealing with this case have not become clear at the end of the debate. People did not considered the standards of the biomedical practice adequate nor the standards of the dairy farming practice. Both perspectives remain open. It even may be the case that animal transgenesis develops as a practice of its own or that animal transgenesis will only be judged from the point of view of general standards and values instead of from contextual standards.</p><p>The process of debating has been subject of the debate as well. The debaters have criticised each others inputs and have reacted to critique with respect to their conduct. These critiques provide insight in the implicit rules of debating in public.</p><p>Public debates are debates in front of the public as an audience. If people are debating in public, they will not in it for understanding and convincing each other. Their main objective will be to influence public opinion and to gain public support for their views. They will reason as lucid as possible. And this has consequences for the evaluation of the conduct of the debaters. This does not mean that there are no rules, but it does mean that there will be specific rules for these kind of discussions. So, people will be criticised if they go too far, that is to say if they violate the rules of decent reasoning.</p><p>Debating in public is more than reasoning only. There are all kinds of theatrical elements as well, like suggestive photo's or posters, or telling stories about other debaters, or suggestive reasoning. Here too, rules of decent conduct can be reconstructed from the critiques on several of these theatrical elements that were uttered during the debate at hand.</p><p>This study ends with a reply to the people that have criticised this debate in general. From their critiques it can be derived that these critics have raised too high (too idealistic) expectations of public debates. The fruitfulness and sense of a public debate should not be assessed on the basis of convergence of opinions or on the orientation at consent of the debaters, but on the quality and rationality of the reasoning of the debaters. One may witness that all debaters have developed their views and reasoning; they have listened to others and have reacted to these inputs by better articulating their own reasoning or by adapting their actions. It is evident that the participants have not always conducted according to the rules of decent debating. But, they have taken critique on their conduct seriously and have adapted their behaviour.</p>
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Korthals, M.J.J.A.A., Promotor
    • Keulartz, F.W.J., Promotor
    Award date13 Nov 2001
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058085122
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


    • biotechnology
    • genetic engineering
    • recombinant dna
    • bulls
    • animal welfare
    • ethics
    • philosophy
    • public opinion
    • newspapers
    • netherlands
    • animal protection
    • care of animals
    • moral

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