Science & Fiction

Last August, President George W. Bush announced his decision banning federal funding for stem-cell research that involved the destruction of living human embryos. At that time, Bush also announced the formation of a National Bioethics Commission to advise him and the nation on such difficult questions. Leon Kass, a well-known and respected bioethicist, was appointed chairman.

The full seventeen-member commission met for the first time in January to discuss human cloning. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill banning cloning, both so-called "therapeutic" cloning as well as the explicit cloning of a human being, usually referred to as "reproductive" cloning. Therapeutic cloning, which advocates claim holds the promise of one day helping to develop cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and spinal cord injuries, is widely supported within the scientific research community, and has recently been given the imprimatur of the National Academy of Sciences. This spring the Senate will consider a bill sponsored by Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that would ban cloning aimed at creating a child, but unlike the House bill, would permit therapeutic cloning.

Kass opposes all cloning, and there seems little chance that his commission, which is weighted heavily with thinkers who express similar skepticism about the direction and pace of biogenetic research, will issue a report approving therapeutic cloning. The commission’s likely refusal to embrace cloning despite the medical potential of stem-cell research has aroused the ire of many who are impatient with arguments about when life begins. Both the editorial page of the New York Times (January 19, 2002) and the New Yorker (February 4, 2002) have cast Kass as a kind of scientific dilettante in thrall to the "fundamentalism" of the religious right.

But Kass, who is a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and has both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is no Luddite. He is an observant Jew, but by no means a fundamentalist. One need not agree with his every position to appreciate that he is a sophisticated and learned bioethicist. When it comes to questions such as when life begins or should we engineer our children’s genes, there are no airtight arguments on either side. But Kass’s qualms about cloning are well-reasoned and based on a profound understanding of the unique moral character of human life; they have nothing to do with an indifference to "facilitating medical advances," as the Times suggested. Truth be told, there are not two types of cloning. The procedure employed and the biological entities created in therapeutic and reproductive cloning are identical. The only difference is in the intent of the scientists who are manipulating the embryos: in one case, the intent is to create a new life possessing the genetic identity of the donor of the cell nucleus; in the other, the intent is to harvest the stem cells from that new life and then destroy it. Although reasonable people can disagree about the moral status and "personhood" of the embryo, the distinction drawn between therapeutic and reproductive cloning is sophistry.

The real issue is quite straightforward: Those in favor of therapeutic cloning believe that the potential good to be derived from the destruction of the embryo outweighs the fact that human life has been created only to be exploited and then destroyed. Those opposed to such research think that the logic of justification behind therapeutic cloning will set a dangerous precedent, legitimating experimentation on other human beings, born and unborn. Kass and Daniel Callahan, for instance, have argued persuasively ("Ban Stand," New Republic, August 6, 2001) that there will be no effective way to control reproductive cloning once therapeutic cloning is permitted. And once that door is pried open, even if with the best of intentions, the brave new world of "designer children" will have arrived.

No one should doubt the complexity of these issues or that people of genuine moral integrity can be found on both sides. And that is what makes the intemperate response to the Kass commission so demoralizing. Especially disappointing was the New Yorker "Comment" written by Jerome Groopman, the distinguished Harvard cancer specialist and writer. Groopman not so subtly denigrates Kass’s credentials, contrasting him to "working" scientists and mocking Kass’s use of literature to help illuminate bioethical questions. (Kass opened the commission’s meeting with a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The Birthmark," a story about scientific hubris.) This seems a curious and uncharacteristic objection for Groopman to make, since his own literary sensibility and skills have brought him to the attention of those outside the medical community. In fact, Groopman’s New Yorker piece offers little more than a caricature of Kass’s views, juxtaposing Kass’s reliance on "fiction" to science’s regard for "fact," as though the truths of literature, or even religion, are not relevant to the practice of medicine or the uses of science. Such a narrow sense of what constitutes genuine knowledge is astonishing coming from a physician who has written so eloquently about his own patients, who believes suffering can be relieved "with the medicine of friendship," and who views life "in deeply spiritual terms" himself.

Equally disturbing is Groopman’s implicit lament, one shared by the Times’s invocation of "experts," that decisions about issues such as cloning are not left to professional organizations like the National Academy of Sciences. Groopman disingenuously compares Kass’s concerns about human cloning to an uninformed effort by the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1976 to prohibit recombinant DNA research. Of course, scientific illiteracy is a real problem, but it is not the only problem with which rapid scientific advancement confronts us. Science is not immune from error, folly, or self-serving boosterism. Nor are the seductions of money and power unknown to those in the laboratory. Nor is science easily deterred from rushing into morally dubious research before exhausting other avenues. The potential for therapies that might be developed safely from adult stem cells, for instance, are yet to be explored.

The manipulation and alteration of human life—and perhaps even human nature itself—raise questions about human dignity that science alone cannot answer. In a democracy, such questions are rightly taken up by the people and their elected representatives—even by pro-life Republicans. Too much is at stake for scientists alone to be making decisions about the future of our species.


Related: After Kass, by Andrew Lustig
End of Discussion, by Gilbert Meilaender
Paul Lauritzen reviews A Rich Bioethics by Andrew Briggle

Published in the 2002-02-22 issue: 
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