- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

On occasion, more guidance can be found in questions asked than answers given. That is the case for a “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,” a remarkable report released last week by the president’s Council on Bioethics. It makes few policy recommendations, but rather raises a series of questions that must be asked — and asked again and again — as biotechnologies emerge.

Instead of focusing on the ethical implications of a specific means, the report looks to the human desires that lead to potential ends. In doing so, it puts the burden of using biotechnology properly where it belongs — on humans. It notes, “The age of biotechnology is not so much about technology itself as it is about human beings empowered by biotechnology.”

The report analyzes four broad areas in which humans could misuse biotechnology in their well-intentioned quest for better lives — for better children, for superior mental and athletic performance, for ageless bodies and for happy souls. It then examines the hidden costs that could come from doing so.

For instance, it suggests that prolonging life indefinitely might also lead to prolonged adolescence, with years bringing whining instead of wisdom. Long years might also lead to less appreciation of the passing moments of one’s life. Medically reducing the mental anguish over the loss of a loved one might diminish one’s capacity to mourn properly. Each new biotechnology will bring with it traps and tradeoffs.

Council Chairman Leon Kass has been seen as a foe of biotechnology. However, council members are neither Puritans nor Luddites, considering that they “eagerly embrace biotechnologies as aids for preventing or correcting bodily or mental ills and for restoring health and fitness. We even more eagerly embrace the pursuits of happiness, excellence and self-improvement.”

Rather, council members fear that biotechnology will move men beyond wholeness to impoverished humanity. The dystopia they dread is closer to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — one in which humans still have the freedom of choice, but where their humanity is diminished by freely made choices. The road to that perdition is truly paved with good intentions — as the council argues, “The concerns we have raised here emerge from a sense that tremendous new powers to serve certain familiar and often well-intentioned desires may blind us to the larger meaning of our ideals, and many narrow our sense of what it is to live, to be free and to seek after happiness.”

The report makes few recommendations to avoid that end, but it has done a service by showing the means that might lead there. It guides not by demanding a direction, but rather by illuminating potential paths.

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