- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

This is the conclusion to the series of editorials on the challenges raised by the October report of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Last week, many resolved to enrich their lives and deepen their life experience by breaking old habits and trying new things. Although many of those promises are broken before mid-January, the resolution to develop and improve is essential to human nature.

The same aspirations are driving developments in biotechnology. At first glance the field’s products seem a gift to every guilt-stricken resolution breaker, providing an accessible means to permanent self-improvement. Biotechnologies could help children becomehighacademic achievers and help athletes improvetheirperformances. They could give each person lengthened days (stretching, perhaps, to immortality) and happier moments in them.

Yet, as this series has demonstrated, such improvements could come at the cost of lessened humanity. The yardstick of a life experienced fully is a useful baseline against which the skewing effects of biotechnologies can be seen. Increased lifespans might make individuals less purposeful and society less dynamic. Drugs that improve performances (whether on the athletic field or in the classroom) might devalue the excellence sought and even diminish the drive to achieve. Pharmaceuticals that brighten moods and dull the pain of memories might become chemical crutches that reduce self-sufficiency and erode moral agency.

While many question when particular biotechnolgies will come into full development and what their effects might be, few doubt that individuals will use (and abuse) them as they become available. Students are already using anti-anxiety drugs to raise their test scores; prospective parents (particularly in the developing world) are already using sex selection techniques to choose sons instead of daughters.

Yet the drive to improve will ensure that biotechnologies continue to develop. Many, perhaps most, should, since their potential to restore health and aid in the quest for self-improvement cannot be cast aside.

Though the techniques give new powers, the problems that they present are ancient. As the council argued, “The age of biotechnology is not so much about technology itself as it is about human beings empowered by biotechnology.”Considering humanity’s experience of being empowered by other revolutionary technologies, that is an unsettling thought.

That disquiet raised by the council should encourage policy-makers to carefully examine new biotechnologies as they develop, to consider their implications and to examine their potential abuses. There may be some technologies that should be prohibited; some lines of research that should be slowed or even stopped. At the least, public debates should continue to be held on them.

Examination of what biotechologies might make mankind into may even lead men and women to evaluate their lives as they are, and to pursue the opportunities for improvement allowed in each unforgiving moment. It’s a wise resolution for the new year, one in which there will be many new challenges from biotechnology.

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