President George W. Bush made two announcements in his televised speech on August 9, 2001. First, he would permit federal funding for experiments on stem cells derived from human embryos, but only on cells derived from embryos already killed by August 9. Second, he would appoint a Presidential Advisory Council on Bioethics, led by Leon Kass, to review this and other issues.
Longtime professor on the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, Kass is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in biochemistry who has a background in National Institutes of Health research. He was a founding member of the board of the Hastings Center, the nation's premier bioethics think tank. I met with Kass at his American Enterprise Institute office in Washington. (Kass noted that his comments do not reflect the position of the federal government.)
How do you see the work of the President's Council on Bioethics?
Our first task is to do fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of these advances in biomedical science and technology—not just pronounce them good, bad, or indifferent. Second, we shall seek to delineate the ethical and social issues that particular advances may raise, and serve as a national forum for discussion. Finally, we need also to explore ways for fruitful international collaboration around some of these matters. The challenges that confront us are not mainly issues of good versus evil but rather issues of competing goods. Because the council has been liberated from the need to produce consensus, we are free to develop the competing arguments at the highest level.
It's very important that everybody in the discussion acknowledge that the other side also has something vital to defend here. For example, people who care about the sanctity of life should understand that the scientists who wish to experiment on embryos are also defending something very important when they seek in this way to cure disease. And the scientists have to understand that people who worry about the fate of the embryos are not simply practitioners of some narrow religious doctrine, but are defending the dignity of our humanity.
What kind of people has the President named to this body?
I don't want to call them experts; I rather distrust the "expert" label. But they are people who have backgrounds in medicine and science, law and public policy, philosophy and theology, and in the humanities and social sciences. Some of these were names I suggested, but the selections were made in the White House from a list of several hundred people.
What distinguishes this group of people is that they have been chosen with some view to their openness, to their thoughtfulness. They see that in some way the human future is at stake in these questions, and they are willing, with fear and trembling, to search for the wisest possible course as opposed to the cleverest possible arrangements.
This is a council on bioethics, rather than a council of bioethicists. By bioethics I mean the domain of difficulties that arise when human life as ordinarily lived is challenged by ideas and practices coming from modern biomedical science and technology. To address these concerns adequately, we need to go to deeper ground than that now occupied by mainstream bioethicists. We need thoughtful reflection about the riches and goodness (the ethics) of human life (bios), as they might be fostered and threatened by these new advances. The Greek word bios didn't simply mean life in the sense of animal life. Bios was a human life, the human life that is lived humanly. It finds its place really in the word biography, the writing of a human life. Biology meaning the science of all life is a late notion.
Let's move to your own background—what has prepared you to take this role?
To give a quick answer: I suffer from a late-onset, probably lethal, rabbinic gene which has gradually expressed itself, and it has taken me over. I think a number of things count. I'm a first-generation American raised in a Yiddish-speaking, proudly Jewish but secular home, with no religious rearing whatsoever. There were socialist leanings, and strong moral teachings. My parents were both immigrants, neither of them schooled. But the moral questions and the question of how to live righteously and nobly and well and with dignity were the questions of their home. I don't just mean that you were exhorted to be good, but that there were dinner conversations about "What do you think of so-and-so's behavior?" One was somehow encouraged to pay attention to conduct and to character. As to the integrity of both of my parents—I can't shine their shoes. There was a remarkable moral example, and a kind of explicit moral conversation.
At the University of Chicago, I realized that there were real questions, whereas previously I only had answers. Although I was headed for biology, I was introduced to some of the questionable philosophical assumptions that are at the foundations of modern science—to which we mostly just don't pay any attention, because we see science as progressive, and more is better and truer.
I was headed for a career in academic medicine. Then in 1965 my wife and I went to Mississippi to do civil rights work. I came back with this question: Why was there more honor and dignity and things that I admired in these ignorant black farmers in Mississippi with whom we lived than in my well-educated, privileged fellow graduate students at Harvard University? I had been taught that education, opportunity, and privilege would banish poverty and superstition, and enable human beings to flower morally into the kinds of creatures that only the stinginess of nature and their ignorance prevented them from being. If that was true, why this discrepancy between these very smart people who were around me, many of whom you would not want your sister to marry, and these very fine, simple, uneducated men and women?
I really had questions, because if a kind of simple Enlightenment progressivist view of morals on a purely secular foundation was correct, this couldn't be right. And if what I believed was wrong, what was in its place? That began a series of readings. A friend gave me Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences to read, and I read Aristotle's Ethics and Physics with him. He also gave me C. S. Lewis's Abolition of Man to read, and Huxley's Brave New World. And I was off. On the side of science, there were certain assumptions about nature, and human nature, that set the metaphysical questions aside so that we can get on with the power to predict and control events. On the other side, there were certain questions about the foundations of morals that advances in science all threaten to make more complicated.
I also learned gradually that what I thought had been the socialism of my home was, in fact, a terrestrialized version of prophetic Judaism. It was the Prophets without the Law. This was true of that whole generation. Many of these people who fell for Marxism did so out of a longing for justice, and belief that one didn't have to wait for the messianic age, one could build it here and now. Especially when our children were born, I realized that one shouldn't live as a parasite on a tradition that one knew nothing about. So I joined a synagogue, I began to do some studying of the Torah. I don't regard myself as a good enough Jew by a long shot, either in terms of learning or practice. But I've come to treasure the biblical strand of our Western tradition more than the strand that flows from Athens.
The bioethical issues have come together in a dramatic way in the debate about human cloning. How have you come to your conclusions about it?
I've been opposed to human cloning from the very beginning. Cloning represents a very clear, powerful, and immediate example in which we are in danger of turning procreation into manufacture, sometimes referred to as "designer babies," in which parents and scientists impose their private eugenic visions on the child-to-be. A child, therefore, ceases to be welcomed as a gift, as a mysterious stranger whose genetic independence from the parents is a kind of emblem of the kind of independence that all of our children are raised to acquire, and instead becomes a being to work out the particular will that the parents have. So part of the reason that this bothers people is that it looks like a degrading of parenthood and a perversion of the right relation between parents and children.
There are also questions about identity and individuality that come really from the fact that the clone, while not a perfect copy of the original, is at least brought into being out of a desire to produce something like a replica of the original. And the genetic distinctiveness is also a kind of emblem of the unique, never before to have lived and never to be repeated again trajectory of an individuated human life from birth to death. Here, a blueprint of a life that has already lived is somehow being reenacted once again.
Greg Pence, one of the most articulate cloning advocates, argues that this is simply an issue of "reproductive freedom"—just another option, building on in vitro fertilization and other technologies.
Well, we do, in fact, restrict so-called reproductive freedom. We do not allow polygamy, we do not allow incest, we do not allow the buying and selling of babies so people can realize their reproductive aspirations in the case of unwelcome infertility. The so-called right to reproduce is not an unlimited right. Moreover, while perhaps you could sympathize with those who seek to replace a dead child with a copy, or to copy a parent or a relative or even a celebrity, I would be inclined to say that to create a child to fulfill those expectations could be regarded as a form of child abuse. It would be unsafe biologically, but beyond that these are experiments in identity, in being made a design of somebody else. In the language of research ethics, these are unethical experiments on the child-to-be, who cannot give consent to have that experiment foisted upon him. In those terms, it fits with all kinds of other restrictions we place on people's freedom to do things to their children and to experimental subjects.
What is your perspective on the abortion debate, and on the bearing that it has on these new questions?
These matters both are and are not connected to the abortion controversy. How one looks upon nascent human life is part of what it means to stand reverently or irreverently before our humanity. And I don't think you need to believe that the two-day-old human embryo is a "person" or a full human being to feel that something is being violated if one is casual about its fate or its destruction.
The abortion controversy, though it has been largely fought over the question of the fate of the fetus, is also important for what it says about our stance toward procreation and children altogether. It's a short step from the belief that every child should be a "wanted child," the slogan that defends abortion, to the belief that a child exists to satisfy our wants, and that if the child doesn't measure up to our wants, we go to genetic engineering to improve him—to get the features we want, the product.
There is also a coarsening of the sensibilities of a society that practices abortion, which may carry over into how it looks upon its children that are born. The biotechnologies raise equally grave, if not even graver, questions above and beyond the so-called life questions.
What's wrong with Huxley's Brave New World is not that there is destruction of embryos. It is that we have somehow taken our humanitarian principles to cure disease, relieve suffering, eliminate grief, and so on in a way that has robbed human life of almost everything that makes it worthwhile. There is no art, there is no science, there is no religion, there's no love, there's no friendship, there's no self-governance—it's a world of trivial pursuits.
Both sides have tended to settle really on what I would call the basement level of this discussion. The basement is important because if there is no foundation there is no building. On the other hand, what we're really arguing about is whether, when this building is finished, the ceiling is going to be so close to the floor that the human beings that are going to live in this basement will be midgets, humanly speaking. That's why, as bad as it might be to destroy a creature made in God's image, it might be very much worse to be creating them after images of one's own.
Do you sense that the steady collapse of our culture and its moral vision will undermine our best efforts to set a human frame around these wondrous new things? Will technique plus marketing write the next chapter?
The technical is not just the machinery. The technical is a disposition to life. The technological way of thinking has infected even ethics, which is supposed to be thinking about the good, and instead it's trying to solve various problems so we can go on to the next problem. And I would be just a fool to be simply naïvely optimistic about the prospects. One of the regrettable things about the stem cell discussion was the hype that the proponents used, taking advantage of desperate people's desires for cures and promising them cures just around the corner, when truth to tell we don't even have animal examples of anything remotely resembling a cure for any of these diseases.
What is absolutely new is the economic power of biotech. And we've just seen the beginning. Whether this will go the way of the dot-coms or whether this will, in fact, grow with burgeoning power is an open question, though I suspect they will learn to be effective in doing the things that are promised. By the way, the neuroscience area—which is absolutely in its infancy—is much more important than genetics. Genetics is crude, but neuroscience goes directly to work on the brain, and the mind follows. And we know next to nothing of what we're going to know in 20 or 50 years.
So, at the moment, we have on one side scientists with prestige, knowledge, and power backed by powerful economic interests. And on the other side there are those of us who are putting hard questions about human values. How many divisions does the pope have? In this discussion, not very many. One of the things that I hope our council will be able to address is not just the moral arguments or even just the human goods that are at stake, but also do some institutional thinking, so that after this council disappears, there might be some proposals for institutions that would take up these questions and have some kind of regulatory force. In the absence of that, it does seem that the steamroller may simply have its own force.
But there is one last thing on the other side. There are certain resiliencies in the human spirit. We've seen it in this country since September 11. The culture might be said to be debased, and certain cultural forms have lost their roots. But I would be slow to predict simply the disappearance of the regard for the things that make us human. I teach in the university in a culture which is very debased; students come in with the most shallow thoughts on the tips of their tongues. But if you put good things in front of them to read that force them to talk about love and friendship or citizenship or the virtues, it turns out they're capable of it.
Also, there is a renewed interest in religion. The interest in religious questions and religious studies among the younger generation is palpable. Perhaps the events of September 11 and their aftermath provide an opportunity for thinking not only about safety, but more deeply about how best to spend our allotted three score and ten. If that happens, then it seems to me that a kind of thinking which is not technocratic has an opportunity for a renaissance in this country.
Read a fuller version of this interview at ct's website (christianitytoday.com/go/kass/).
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy (BiotechPolicy.com) at the Wilberforce Forum and a CT contributing editor.
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A Bible study based on this article is available in Christianity Today'sCurrent Issue Bible Study Series. This unique series uses articles from current issues of the magazine to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
See the transcript of President Bush's Aug. 9 speech on embryo stem cell funding (video). A Christianity Todayeditorial supported Bush's decision and gave "three cheers" to his choice of advisors: Leo Kass.
Other commentary on Kass's appointment included:
Leon Kass, philosopher-politician—The Economist (Aug. 16, 2001)
Leon Kass brings moral seriousness to his task—The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 16, 2001)
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy at the Wilberforce Forum. In 1995, he wrote Christianity Today's "Doctors Under OathModern medicine has misplaced its moral compass. Can Hippocrates help?"
Do No Harm, the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, is a national coalition of researchers, bioethicists, and others dedicated to the promotion of scientific research and health care which does no harm to human life.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of bioethics includes:
Goodbye, DollyWe need nothing less than a total ban on human cloning. (May 15, 2002)
Weblog: 'All Human Cloning Is Wrong,' Says BushPublic is 4-to-1 against all human cloning, but Senate is evenly split on comprehensive ban. (April 11, 2002)
Weblog: The Prolife PushIt's 2002, time to ban cloning. (January 15, 2002)
New Coalition Rallies Against Human CloningAfter Advanced Cell Technology announcement, sharp criticism comes from all sides. (December 20, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: "Daddy, What Is the Soul?"Does the church have an answer? (December 10, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: 'We Now Know'The boast of imperial science. (December 3, 2001)
Opinion Roundup: 'Only Cellular Life'?Christians, leaders, and bioethics watchdogs react to the announcement that human embryos have been cloned. (November 29, 2001)
Weblog: Human Cloning's 'Success'Human embryos cloned for 1st time. (November 26, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: "24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (November 26, 2001)
The New TyrannyBiotechnology threatens to turn humanity into raw material. (Oct. 5, 2001)
Gen-Etiquette | Scientists may be mapping the genome, but it will be up to us to determine where the map will lead. (Oct. 4, 2001)
Manipulating the Linguistic CodeReligious language falling into the hands of scientists can be a fearful thing. (Oct. 4, 2001)
Times FiftyCan a clone be an individual? A short story. (Oct. 2, 2001)
The Genome DoctorThe director of the National Human Genome Research Institute answers questions about the morality of his work. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Wanna Buy a Bioethicist?Some corporations have discovered that bioethics makes good public relations. (Sep. 28, 2001)
A Matter of Life and DeathWhy shouldn't we use our embryos and genes to make our lives better? The world awaits a Christian answer. (Sep. 28, 2001)
House Backs Human Cloning BanScientists say they'll go ahead anyway. (August 27, 2001)
Embryos Split ProlifersBush decision pleases some, keeps door open for disputed research. (August 27, 2001)
Two CheersPresident Bush's stem-cell decision is better than the fatal cure many sought. (August 10, 2001)
House of Lords Legalizes Human Embryo CloningReligious leaders' protests go unheeded by lawmakers. (Feb. 2, 2001)
Britain Debates Cloning of Human EmbryosScientists want steady stream of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes. (Nov. 22, 2000)
Tissue of Lies?Latest stem-cell research shows no urgent need to destroy human embryos for the cause of science. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Beyond the Impasse to What?Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)
Thus Spoke SupermanTroubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000)
New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines CriticizedNIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999)
Editorial: The Biotech Temptation (July 12, 1999)
Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999)
Stop Cloning Around (April 27, 1997)
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