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Leon Kass is chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics in the United States. Kass is also a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and author of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Dignity: The Challenge of Bioethics" and, most recently, "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis." The following article is excerpted from the forthcoming Winter 2005 issue of NPQ, "The Scientific Imagination."

By Leon Kass

WASHINGTON — Today, we are in quest of personal immortality. The only good that everybody can now agree on is health. Life, health and longevity — those are good things.

We have actually gotten so accustomed to the benefits of modern medicine that we are greedy. We don't live with our improved health grateful for the fact that we no longer die of polio, or smallpox. Now we expect that when we need a kidney, one should be found. And we regard anything that gets in the way of our having our organs replaced as, in fact, responsible for our deaths.

Predictably, the satisfaction of desire has only led to the inflation of our desires.

With the decline of the belief in an afterlife and with an increasing belief that this is the only life, the desire to stick around and not check out grows without bounds. We are more afraid of death than ever and more attached to this life than ever. The only things we can agree are good are better health, longer life and relief of suffering.

Yet, this pursuit of bodily immortality for ourselves is a deformation. It actually gets in the way of our trying to realize as much as we can, in this life, those aspirations for something higher to which I believe our souls naturally point.

The immortality the various religious traditions offer us is not a promise of continuation of more of the same, only indefinitely. It is a promise of fulfillment of deeper longings, whether it is for wisdom or for full unity with a beloved, or whether it is to be in God's presence.

It is not the promise of being able to go shopping at Wal-Mart until the last trump, even with vigor.

It is not an accident that it is this first truly consumer generation that is interested in harvesting stem cells, using the seeds of the next generation to make sure that the present one won't die.

Such an attitude is really hostile to children, which is one reason the birth rate in a place like Italy is 1.2 children per woman per lifetime. We discover now in prosperity why it was that God had to command his human creation to be fruitful and multiply. He doesn't command him to breathe or eat.

The present attitude of consumer society is against the grain of all past human experience, which called for sacrifice in the present for the sake of those who come after you. That has been the way of the world up until this age.

The preoccupation with one's self and with one's own neediness and immediate satisfactionis encouraged by liberal democracy, which is designed, politically speaking, to give free people what they want. In some way, that is at odds with actually getting our lives fulfilled. It is capable of destroying our community and our institutions.

All this, of course, is not simply despicable. Life is good, death is bad, other things being equal. If you don't want to live forever yourself, you hate to see your loved ones die. I am old enough to know that.

This consumer mentality is now fed by a huge industry. Health care now accounts for a third or more of GDP in the United States.

Therefore, even if one were inclined to gain some political control over where technology is taking us, the majoritarian consensus is: "If it will cure disease, let's have it. You can't stop progress. Galileo already defeated the Church on this. Don't be a Luddite."

Are we headed, then, toward a brave new world?

The Brave New World, as Aldous Huxley envisioned it, was an attempt to rationalize human nature to the bottom. It begins in the establishment of human hatcheries — where human life comes about not through procreation but is genetically programmed.

But the Brave New World also aspires to some kind of synthetic happiness — happiness understood as the absence of unhappiness aided by virtual amusements and pharmacological substitutions that provide a mood of ecstasy. In the Brave New World they conquer disease and poverty. They prevent war. There is no grief or shame. But what you get in their placeare people of human shape but of shrunken humanity — no friendship, no love, no art, no self-governance, no science.

Looking at our lives today, it seems we are on the way to such a world. This is the result of taking the humanitarian project to its logical conclusion— to conquer nature for the relief of the human condition. There is nothing countervailing that quest.

In short, the logic for a Brave New World is in place. Whether we go there practically, I don't know.

How we set standards in the face of that logic is a hard question. I have been accused of being an irrationalist and a mystic for looking to the "wisdom of repugnance" for answers, as if the repugnance by itself would tell you what to do. Repugnance is at best a warning that you might be in the presence of an action that violates a boundary you transgress at your peril.

In an age when repugnancies were sound, you didn't need philosophers to come to their rescue. Some repugnancies, it is true, were merely prejudice and ugliness, for example regarding miscegenation —a repugnance we are happily rid of.

If you care about the dignity of a woman's body, you don't treat her womb as an incubator into which you could put fetuses for a short time for the sake of research or spare body parts. If you think about the dignity of a human child coming into the world, you don't undermine that child's right to have two biological parents rather than to be the clone of one. If you care even about the dignity of basic human life, you don't put human embryo cells in an animal uterus and pull it out later to see what you can make of it. You don't mix rabbits and humans.

Having said that, there is still a continuum. Is it wrong if you put into human DNA one rabbit gene that might confer immunity to some human disease? We put viruses into our bodies and immunize ourselves with foreign DNA, yet we don't somehow regard that as traducing our humanity.

There are gray areas. Yet, the existence of dawn doesn't mean that day and night aren't finally two different things. We have to struggle to find those boundaries. But we won't struggle until we are somehow alerted by our repugnance on the one hand, and our awe on the other, that we are at a new frontier.

Clearly, over the past 20 years the suspicion has arisen that we might be about to violate something deeply dear without even knowing it.

We have thus begun the effort to get some control over biotechnology. Whether we succeed or not is still an open question. I am very disappointed that we have not yet succeeded in banning human cloning in the United States.

Beyond that, it is not right to simply place bans or prohibitions on everything.

There needs to be regulation, and in some cases perhaps self-imposed boundaries are enough. These things need to be worked out among scientists, those with religious sensibilities and the public at large. It is a political task.

(c) 2004, NPQ/Global Viewpoint



Ian Wilmut, famous for being the "father" of Dolly, the cloned sheep, is a professor at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. The following article is excerpted from the forthcoming Winter 2005 issue of NPQ, "The Scientific Imagination."

By Ian Wilmut

It is unfortunate that so much of the public attention concerning cloning has been concentrated on the idea of copying people, which I do not favor for any reason at all.

Cloning technology will mainly be useful as a way to treat human diseases by producing proteins, by producing organs from animals thatcan be transplanted into human patients and by producing new human cells that can replace damaged cells.

The most controversial issue today is the idea of producing human cells to treat disease. This is very promising because diseases like Parkinson's, Type 1 diabetes and AIDS involve cells that cannot repair or replace themselves when damaged.

The idea is controversial because the only way you can do this at present is to produce a human embryo from which you could then derive "stem cells" in a tissue culture dish in the lab. Embryonic stem cells retain the ability to differentiate into all the various tissues of the human body. If the new cells taken from embryos, such as eyelet cells to treat diabetes, are then transplanted into the person with the disease to replace damaged cells, there would be no immune reaction because the cells would be immunologically the same.

The controversial point is whether that embryo is a human being, or only a ball of cells with human potential.

The "embryo" would comprise about 250 cells, but with almost no differentiation into cells with special functions. At that stage of growth there is no evidence of a nervous system that could register pain or any other way in which that embryo would be conscious or aware.

In this important sense, the embryo is not a "person."It is only a potential person.

Using that embryo as the basis for developing differentiated cells in a tissue culture dish is no different than transplanting the organs of a dead person into a living one. Most people are comfortable with that.

Ultimately, society has to decide if we go down this path or not. The scientists, the companies and the patients are too closely involved, too self-interested, to make the proper decision.

The United Kingdom has been well-served by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority — a body composed of philosophers, theologians, development biologists and lay people. Public opinion must also be taken into account.

Obviously, the United States, disposed to a greater degree of individual freedom and responsibilitythan Europe, is less disposed to regulate cloning. I hope this is a passing aberration.

After all, through the Federal Drug Administration, irresponsible companies are prevented from selling preparations laced with alcohol.And adoption — a practice far less intrusive on family and child than cloning — is strongly regulated.

(c) 2004, NPQ/Global Viewpoint
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