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Abstract

Questions about the relevance of religious views to public policy have been central in debates over the governance of biotechnology since the 1960s. This article offers an empirical analysis of moments of deliberative politics surrounding human embryo research, primarily within public bioethics bodies. I examine how these bodies have used the idea of public reason as developed in deliberative democratic theory to differentiate between secular and religious reasons. I argue that scientific authority is made to play a powerful, but largely unacknowledged role in constructing these categories by contributing to definitions of the range of “reasonable” pluralism. I show that notions of right (scientific) knowledge are co-produced with ideas of how public discourse can be disciplined to comport with an ideal of public reason. I argue that scientific authority powerfully shapes the contours of public deliberation in ways that are highly consequential for notions of democratic legitimacy, but are systematically unrecognized by political theorists.

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