- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

This is the third part in a series of editorials on the challenges raised by the October report of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

At times, all athletes — whether pro-league all-stars or beer-league bench setters — wish they had greater ability. Aspiring to athletic excellence is integral to being human. Performances can always be improved; records will eventually be broken.

However, such pursuits can have a pernicious side, leading athletes to consume steroids or dope themselves with designer drugs. At some point in the not-so-distant future, the accumulation of muscle mass might be driven by genetic treatments.

Such treatments carry a price well above the adverse side effects commonly associated with today’s enhancers of choice. Admittedly, the temptation for them will be as great as it is today — no matter how great the gift, innate ability can only elevate one so much; regardless of how rigorous, training will only take one so far.

Yet an outstanding athletic contest consists of far more than a result. Competition involves human rivals, whose bodies and minds are acting in concert to produce the strenuous grace of excellent performances.

Since abilities are distributed unevenly, athletes must overcome different sets of challenges to reach pinnacle performances. By using performance-enhancing drugs, athletes are not simply short-circuiting training, but actually procuring a different set of abilities. The council notes that in doing so, “We are not in fact honoring our bodies or cultivating our individual gifts. We are instead … voting with our syringes to have a different body, with different native capacities and powers.”

That devalues the excellence that was striven for. It also distorts the very character of such aspirations, making their essence an outward achievement instead of an internal success. Perhaps worst of all, performances could be improved at the price of humanity.

As performance-enhancing technologies continue to be developed, the human aspect — with all its limitations and imperfections — must not be lost. The danger is not that machines will become too human, but rather that humans will become too much like their machines. While machines may be capable of pitching faster or making more chess move computations than humans, machine performances are not superior, since they lack the essential element of human achievement.

Biotechnology may someday allow humans to break every record currently on the books. However, it must not be allowed to break the essence of their humanity as well.

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