In two arenas this year, long-held assumptions about how a society should guide and protect human reproduction are up for grabs:
Friday, the journal Science publishes a well-vetted article describing the first cloning of a human embryo, done by a South Korean team of respected researchers. With the technique now available, governments will face more urgency to resolve the difficult ethical issues that cloning poses.
And this week the Massachusetts legislature was the focus of a nationwide campaign to prevent judges from legalizing same-sex marriage by constitutional amendments, either state or federal.
At first, human cloning and same-sex marriage may not seem related. But both represent alternative ways to either have or raise children outside a traditional mother-father marriage. Both have the potential to profoundly shape a child's identity in ways that society could later regret or embrace.
In other words, both are big social experiments that need careful consideration through the broadest possible discussion and consensus about the proper path. That requires dispassionate debate and careful listening.
In particular, the same-sex marriage issue needs a change in the venue of the discourse. A 4-to-3 decision by the Massachusetts high court that the state allow such marriages by May 1 (which could open the way for such marriages nationwide) revealed a deeply divided court. The opposing judicial opinions were particularly scathing, showing a need to keep this issue in the more public realm of open debate through elected representatives.
How a society makes these decisions will be almost as important as the decisions themselves. And as slow and as stubborn as they are, legislatures - either Congress or at the state level - remain the best forum for tackling these difficult issues.
But that requires engaged and informed citizens letting their views be known. With the likelihood that society will be challenged by more social and scientific shifts, it's essential that the method of decisionmaking be the most open, intelligent, and compassionate.