Ken Connor

"You can't legislate morality." You hear it all the time in Washington, DC. Some Americans assume that there is something unseemly about making laws based on moral standards. Such a notion is absurd, of course. All laws are based on someone's moral standards, someone's view of how things ought to be. Nevertheless, there is a vocal element that insists that morality and law should be completely separate.

These radical separationists are the first to say, "I didn't break any laws when they are caught in a scandal. If accused of dubious business practices, they defend by saying, "It's not against the law." If caught committing adultery in a seedy hotel room they plead, "It's not against the law." If criticized for treating human embryos as raw material to be manipulated and destroyed, they intone, "It's not against the law."

Applications of new technologies can give rise to profound legal and ethical dilemmas. This is especially true in the field of biotechnology where the law-morality dichotomy is proving to be an enormous problem. Many scientists believe that, so long as it is legal, there should be no limit on what they can do in their laboratories. When it comes to scientific experimentation, the question, "Can I?" in the technical sense is often followed by the question, "May I?" in the legal sense. Sadly, that is often as far as the inquiry goes. The question that all too often goes unasked is, "Should I?" The assumption that anything which is legal is morally permissible is not valid, especially in the area of bioethical decision making. Those who look only to the law for guidance in making sound bioethical decisions will be poorly served. The law is seldom an adequate ethical guide in the biomed ical field. Here's why:

Law follows rather than leads. Advances in the biomedical arena are occurring so rapidly that they often occur in a legal vacuum. Frequently, there simply is no law that governs decision making in a given area of biomedicine. The reason is that the fields of biology, medicine, and the law move at vastly different paces. Changes in the law, by design, occur at a ponderously slow pace. "Delay" is the hallmark of change in the law. Not so with science and technology. Thanks to the "magic" of microchips and other state-of-the-art technology, changes are occurring so rapidly in scientific fields that by the time the law is applied to a given area, it is often out of date because technology has moved the field light years ahead. Decision making in the biomedical field, thus, often occurs in uncharted legal waters. In a legal vacuum, that which is not prohibited is permitted. But merely because something is permitted, however, doesn't mean it is right.

Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.