Biotechnology: How far should researchers go?

Ever since it was discovered that yeast could turn dough into bread, people have toyed with biotechnology to improve their lives.

But much more profound uses of that technology lie on the immediate horizon. These include drugs that could selectively delete painful or shameful memories; various techniques that could greatly lengthen the average life span; computer chips that could interact directly with the human brain, increasing mental abilities; and human bodies that operate more like "tools," altered to suit an individual's needs and tastes.

While biotechnology can be a force for good, it raises important religious, moral, and philosophical issues when it offers the possibilities of something "better than well," concludes a report issued in October by the President's Council on Bioethics in Washington. "[W]ith our very humanity in the balance, it would be foolish to avert our gaze and trust to fortune."

Here are brief excerpts from a recent Monitor telephone interview with the chairman of that council, Leon Kass:

What is the greatest fear people have about biotechnology?

It's hard to say. Some, mostly religious people, worry about usurping God's powers. There are people more on the left who are inclined to worry about the use of these powers by some people over other people, the pacification of populations producing a certain kind of conformity. There are other people who don't so much worry about the technologies themselves but worry about unequal access to the benefits.

Does the report debunk some fears about biotechnology as illegitimate?

There is a lot of hype and fear - exaggerated promises and exaggerated dangers - and one of the things this report is able to say with some confidence is that this much-talked-about prospect of "designer babies," in which parents can determine in advance the precise genetic makeup of their children, is scientifically unfeasible [now] and unfeasible for the future. This is way down the road.... The virtual impossibility of engineering the precise changes you want means that genetically engineered designer babies are something that we should relax about.

What's so harmful about drugs that create a sense of satisfaction?

It is somewhat worrisome now with an enormous amount of direct advertising from pharmaceutical companies to parents and children offering them a kind of instantaneous solution to their problems. Lots of people are going to accept these partial solutions to their difficulties that might come at the cost of ... not trying to do something about the difficulties themselves [and] producing a kind of spurious contentment or satisfaction....

Lack and aspiration are twins. If you have easy self-contentment, you might have a very, very cheap source of happiness that might in fact get in the way of those kinds of richer pursuits that we pursue as a result of the things that we are missing. That's part of the problem of a pharmaceutical approach to esteem and self-contentment.

Do we need to slow down scientific research in biotechnology to allow ethics to catch up?

I wouldn't put it that way. Almost everybody is enthusiastic about the promise of biotechnology to cure disease and to relieve suffering.... If the questions we raise strike the reader as raising something of a cautionary note, he or she shouldn't mistake this as hostility toward biotechnology or to its many desirable uses.

But one also shouldn't be surprised by the expression of concern. And the reason for this is simple: The benefits of biomedical progress are obvious, clear, and powerful. The hazards are much less well appreciated.... not like nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, where there is not a lot good you can say for them. The problem in this area is something like the Midas problem: Is what we asked for what we wanted? That kind of double-edged character to some of these technologies [means we need] simply to get people to think about this.

Does the debate boil down to those who oppose biotechnology because it's "playing God" versus those who think we ought to pursue any scientific advances open to us, thus using the intelligence that God or nature gave us?

The environmental movement has taught us that one intervenes in the product of eons and eons of evolution at one's peril, and that it's not so much the hubris of usurping God's powers as it's the hubris of having God's powers without God-like knowledge - going in there making transformations without a complete understanding of what you're doing. It's an ancient tension between, on the one hand, wanting to savor the world as it is and, on the other hand, wanting to improve on the world as given.

There is a danger that the freedom to transform everything embraces the freedom to transform our own nature and even to destroy that very freedom itself. So some kind of limits have to be set on how far one can simply use the ... cleverness that we have to make changes.... I'm not making an argument for a static world, and I'm certainly not making an argument that an old world is better than this one. One should simply proceed with caution. We may simply not be wise enough to do some of the kinds of engineering things that people are talking about doing.

The report seems to deal with some fundamental questions about identity.

When the biotechnologies go to work on the human body and mind for purposes other than restoring [them] to normal and healthy, a crucial question is: What does it mean to be a human being?

What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to flourish? And can these means help me flourish or will they give me a poor substitute for flourishing and maybe undermine the likelihood that I will find my path to a full and rich life.

Have we already opened Pandora's box? Will these things be done whether we try to regulate them or not?

This is a common argument. But it's sort of amusing to me that, on the one hand, we believe in the rational mastery of fortune by means of scientific knowledge and rational administrative control. And on the other hand, we say ... there really is nothing we can do about this. You can't have it both ways: Either human beings are going to try to exercise some control over where the technological juggernaut might take us or we have to abandon this view that we really can exercise some kind of rational control....

The United States is an international leader in biotechnology. There is no reason why it can't also be an international leader in the ethical uses of biotechnology. And even if certain rogue countries do things we wish nobody did, it doesn't necessarily mean that their foolishness should justify our following suit.

The report doesn't make recommendations. What do you hope will result from it?

The first steps are to understand what's going on here.... This has been written with the hope that it will have a fairly long shelf life. That people who are the gatekeepers of the uses of some of these technologies, like some of the people in the medical profession, might begin to think about some professional self-regulation in these areas. And there might be areas that eventually become ripe for public policy discussion and intervention.

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