- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Leon R. Kass, MD
Encounter, $26.95, 313 pages

The possibilities inherent in the ongoing revolutions in biotechnology swing swiftly between utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares between worlds of Brobdingnagians with life giving gifts and worlds of Lilliputians whose human nature has been irrevocably shrunken. So will biotechnology result in an Edenic paradise or a "Brave New World"?
Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, fears it will more likely be the latter. He lays out those concerns in his thoughtful critique, "Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics."
Unlike many alarmed by such developments, Dr. Kass' greatest concern is not that researchers will succeed in constructing a sort of proto-Frankenstein (Mary Shelley syndrome) or that the industrial-medical complex will produce an unending number of sub-quality copies of something sufficiently close to perfection that it should just have been left alone (the Attack of the Clones complex).
Rather, Dr. Kass is passionately worried that in our efforts to use biological science to produce better lives for humans, we will end up utterly dehumanizing ourselves. He sees the scientific and political establishments at an ethical fork in the roadwe will either take the low road towards our soft dehumanization via the unlimited research and development of biotechnology; or, we will take the higher way of affirmed humanity via scientific restraint and a renewed humanitarian ethos.
As he writes in the volume's introduction, "The new biotechnologies threaten not so much liberty and equality as something we might summarily call 'human dignity.' … [Biotechnology] threatens human flourishing precisely because, in the absence of countervailing efforts, we may use the fear of death, our various freedoms and rights, and our unrestrained pursuit of profit and pleasure in ways that will make us into human midgets."
Dr. Kass could have taken the 'easy' way of describing ethical choices in the abstract or talked long about technical minutiae (after all, he has both an MD and a PhD in biochemistry). Instead, he opted for the difficult path of advocating specific policy decisions based on his examination of specific biotechnologies and what their applications mean for human dignity, and thus, our definition of humanity. Indeed, his book is much more about the practice of ethics than the particulars of biology.
He opens by describing what he sees as the tragedy of technology it's inescapable dualism, offering at the same time enormous power over nature but little ethical guidance to its practitioners. That includes many of his associates in the bioethics establishment, who he believes are simply not up to the colossal task of restraining the scientific establishment. As he puts it, "Bioethicists have by and large behaved as if they could (and should) do no more than give pious blessings to the inevitable."
He then explores the ethical dilemmas that biotechnology poses for human dignity at every stage of life from test-tube to terminus. Separate chapters cover our ability to manipulate life's germinal period (including stem cells), cloning, selling organs for transplantation, the right to die, death with dignity, the difficulty with our quest for immortality (that it could last forever is not one of his concerns) and the limits of biology.
In each chapter, he examines the technology, describes the critical issues, announces his decision, and then points the out the weaknesses of his stance. At points it almost seems like he is a sculptor walking around an edifice of ethic he's created, examining, explaining, elaborating.
He attempts to reach the heart of issues by pulling words out by their roots there is one exegesis after another. For instance, in the book's second chapter, "The Problem of Technology and Liberal Democracy," he examines the genesis of the words "technology" and "problem," starting with their Greek beginnings. In his discourse on test tube children and the desire of infertile parents to have children of their own, he spends paragraphs attempting to answer what is meant by "to have" and "one's own."
Dr. Kass also proposes, ponders, and answers difficult objections that could be made to his arguments. For example, he proposes that cloning offends human dignity in part because it goes against "the natural human way." He then explains why we should treat sexual reproduction as sacrosanct something more than a mere evolutionary artifact.
Perhaps even more impressively, Dr. Kass considers ethical dilemmas squarely, and admits to uncertainties and paradoxes in the positions he advocates. While maintaining that the standard of human dignity be applied to embryonic research, he notes, "I am aware that I have pointed toward a seemingly paradoxical conclusion about the treatment of unimplanted embryos…" In confronting the question of whether or not selling organs to save lives is worth it's dehumanizing price, he concludes, "I don't want to encourage; yet I cannot simply condemn. I refuse to approve, and yet I cannot moralize."
Dr. Kass manages to rely on sacred authority without being doctrinaire instead of depending on a single sacred text or set of idealists, he points to both prophets and philosophers. At various points he quotes C.S. Lewis, Homer, Alfred North Whitehead and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his passage on the right to die, he looks to John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and Friedreich Nietzsche.
Even the footnotes are thought provoking. Within a section describing the Supreme Court's action in crucial right to die decision, he points out how Nietzschian ideals seeped into Justice William Brennan's dissent.
However, Dr. Kass is so passionate about the dangers he sees that his tone can be high pitched at points modern thought and practice is "drunk on it's scientific and political successes," Americans are facing a "technological juggernaut," we are riding a "runaway train now headed for a posthuman world." Indeed, from beginning to end, the book is filled with references to Aldous Huxley's nightmarish "Brave New World."
Yet despite Dr. Kass' clarion call, those dystopias still seem somewhat distant. Perhaps it's because Adolf Hitler's Germany, Joseph Stalin's Russia or Saddam Husssein's Iraq, while more repressive than even a Huxley or an Orwell could imagine, somehow still contain individuals who refuse to forget their individuality, their humanity.
That stubborn spark of human spirit is a reason to stay optimistic, since at this bioethical fork in the road, we are most like to follow Yogi Berra's axiom, and "take it." Indeed, the true tragedy behind technology's double-edged potential lies not in the science, but rather in ourselves.
It's not a happy thought. But as we move forward to a "Brave New World" of biotechnology, one that is likely to be both better and worse than we can imagine, we should be grateful that we have Dr. Kass' profound defense of human dignity to guide us.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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