November 3, 2003

Kass heads report to President on biotech ethics

If you could use embryo selection to make your offspring free of all genetic maladies, would you do it? If so, suppose you could make your child smart and beautiful by injecting selected genes into its cells—what would you do then?

These issues were recently addressed in a study issued by the President's Council on Bioethics, chaired by Leon Kass, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought in the College. The report, commissioned by President Bush, considered the ethical implications associated with certain applications of biotechnology, drawing policy-making lines between what is acceptable and what is not.

"The most urgent of the Council's intellectual tasks is the need to provide an adequate moral and ethical lens through which to view particular developments in their proper scope and depth," Kass said.

The study, entitled "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness," sought to determine the ethical impacts of recent biotechnological advances, such as cloning, embryonic selection, and gene therapy in the near future.

"We have entered upon a golden age for biology, medicine, and biotechnology," Kass said in the council's report to President Bush. "We will surely welcome, as we have in the past, new technological measures that can bring us healthier bodies, decreased pain and suffering, peace of mind, and longer life," he said.

Kass said that even though the recent biotechnology revolution has enormous potential to aid humanity, scientific advancement without caution could also have negative ethical consequences.

"There is an old expression: to a man armed with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a society armed with biotechnology, the activities of human life may seem more amenable to improvement than they really are," Kass said. "Or we may imagine ourselves wiser than we really are. Or we may get more easily what we asked for only to realize it is much less than what we really wanted."

The study, which was started in June 2002, attempted to resolve a contentious debate that has raged for several years. It has revolved around the use of biotechnology, concerning everything from stem-cell research to the decoding of the human genome to animal cloning.

Until President Bush considers Kass's report, a moratorium is in place on some forms of stem cell research and all forms of human cloning. It remains unclear what effect the report will have on legislation involving biotechnology.

According to Kass, nearly all forms of biotechnology that could be used to cure disease should be explored, but techniques that are for aesthetic purposes should not be used. He believes that the creation of "designer babies"—selecting the embryo that would "look" the best—is morally wrong.

There are still gray areas that need clarification, Kass said, citing several examples: If growth hormone is given to a dwarf to counteract his disease, how should the person who is short—and simply wants to take the hormone to gain a few inches—be treated? If both are allowed to take the growth hormone, what happens when someone of average height wants to take it to become tall?

Above all, Kass hopes that the new frontier of biotechnology will be explored through means that are both morally and scientifically responsible. "We are hopeful that, by informing and moderating our desires, and by grasping the limits of our new powers, we can keep in mind the true meaning of our founding ideals and thus find the means to savor the fruits of the age of biotechnology without succumbing to its most dangerous temptations," he wrote in the letter to the President.

Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought. He has taught at the University since 1976 but is currently on a leave of absence in Washington, D.C.