Coming soon to a pharmacy near you

In December, the President’s Council on Bioethics released Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (HarperCollins). The six-part report provides a balanced but critical assessment of actual and prospective developments in biotechnology. It soberly considers efforts to make “better children” through genetic screening and embryo testing, and to modify behavior with psychotropics like Ritalin. It critiques widespread efforts to attain “superior performance” through drug use, especially in sports, and concludes that such practices, by thwarting standards of traditional competition, may undercut the values associated with “natural” efforts. It raises fundamental questions about extending significantly the human life span or even (for some true believers) recasting aging as a conquerable disease. It considers the promises and perils of seeking “happy souls” through mood-enhancing drugs, and reflects on key aspects of human experience that may be undercut or even lost by such interventions.

Unlike some earlier commissions (and its own earlier report on cloning), the Council here does not make specific recommendations. Instead, it initiates a broad-ranging, perhaps prophetic, public debate. While it discusses the topics noted above, the report is less concerned about offering a “list of many things to think about than a picture of one big thing to think about: the dawning age of biotechnology and...

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