March 13, 2004
The Meaning of 'Human' in Embryonic Research
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
ast month the first cloned human embryo was produced by South Korean scientists who said they would continue their research despite the queasiness of critics.
This month a biologist at Harvard announced that he had developed 17 new lines of human stem cells, using private money to bypass a government moratorium on such research. And as if in demonstration of the roiling passions stirred up by such probings of nascent human life, a renowned biologist at the University of California at San Francisco, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, was dismissed from the President's Council on Bioethics. She then accused the administration of stacking the council with opponents of this research.
In the face of all this, what purpose can possibly be served by a 628-page publication of the bioethics council, an anthology called "Being Human," with its accounts of Peter Pan's short memory, Richard P. Feynman's approach to problem solving and a baseball batter's lightning-fast analysis of a pitch? Do "Silas Marner" and Walt Whitman and Achilles have anything to do with debates over the harvesting of microscopic human cells or the development of antidepressants?
Yes, as it turns out, they do. In fact, "Being Human" may be the most unusual document ever produced by any government panel. It is largely the creation of Leon R. Kass, the council's chairman, who has organized the 95 excerpts into 10 chapters, prefacing each selection with a summary and a series of pedagogical questions that do not shy away from grand themes. "In what sense, if any, does the professor have a whole or unified life?" he asks about a Willa Cather character. "Why does desire fade at the prospect of eternity?" he asks about Odysseus' seduction by Kalypso.
The anthology abridges a bit too liberally at times, and too completely ignores the importance of humor, but otherwise it is a compelling portrait of what it means to be human: what it means to long for perfection with maniacal obsession, as in Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark," to suffer illness like the characters in Richard Selzer's haunting stories, to warily seek immortality like Gilgamesh or warily discover its illusions like Gulliver.
The anthology is also far from incidental to the work of the council.
Many council sessions (www.bioethics.gov/transcripts/transcripttopic.html) involve more traditional material: comments by visiting scientists, medical advocacy groups and biotech representatives; debates about cloning or aging; summaries of recent research. But the problem, Mr. Kass suggests in the introduction, is that bioethics now has its own orthodoxy. The major principles used to assess the ethical status of biological research, Mr. Kass argues, are beneficence, respect and justice. He writes: "So long as no one is hurt, no one's will is violated, and no one is excluded or discriminated against, there may be little to worry about."
This is overstated, perhaps, since ethics committees at biotech companies and hospitals must know that other concerns exist. But Mr. Kass wants those other concerns at the center, not at the margins. The real problem with human cloning or with drugs that might one day extend life and postpone death, he argues, is that they will change fundamental aspects of being human: the way the course of life unfolds, how sufferings are endured, whether children are eagerly sought, whether humanity retains its special status. That is what this anthology implicitly argues.
The human is the terrain over which the battles are being fought. The political problem with the manufacture of human embryos, however early in their development, is not just that it upsets opponents of abortion. It is that it shifts a barrier that might become porous, weakening the sacral quality of the human. And once that takes place, the slippery slope becomes far more slippery. Where are lines to be drawn? Will human life forms ultimately be harvested for the sake of other humans?
This uneasiness may be more widely felt than it seems; the idea of reproductive human cloning is often shunned the way incest is, as a form of primal violation. Therapeutic cloning — the use of these cells in what might become new tissues or organs — is heralded for social benefits: the goal presumably is to alleviate human suffering. But since the slope always slips, the debate must always take place, balancing competing goods and competing risks.
Mr. Kass would prefer to restrict all human cloning research (though as recent news suggests, that would not be easy). But whatever path is taken, the crucial thing, Mr. Kass keeps insisting, is that those risks be clearly recognized. For some reason, this point is often missed. Ms. Blackburn, for example, may or may not be correct in her accusation that the council does not reflect a "full range" of bioethical opinion. But in a polemical article she just wrote with Janet D. Rowley, a council member (and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago), the focus is on scientific realities and "progressive technologies," as if they were sufficient in themselves. The arguments being rejected are not fully grasped. (The article, "Reason as Our Guide," is at: www.plosbiology.org.)
The problem is that progressive technologies, Mr. Kass might say, could turn out to be regressive. Eliminate all suffering, postpone or weaken a sense of mortality, ease all trauma, and what is left may be something less than human. Even if the revolutionary implications for health care were beyond all doubt, it wouldn't settle the matter. The altered nature of being human would still have to be understood. Which is precisely why Nabokov, Tolstoy and Frederick Douglass are here called to testify.