From the day that Eve bit into the forbidden fruit plucked from the tree of knowledge, man has sought to know more about the universe - but at a price. Life as in literature is filled with our kind trying, like Dr. Faustus or Dr. Jekyll, to play God.
Playing God means playing with death, and yet scientific progress depends on man's ambition to look for ways to master what he doesn't understand. Science, for all the good it actually accomplishes, is seldom neutral on the moral scale because it's at the mercy of man, and can be used for good or ill, altruistically or villainously.
James Reston Jr., tells how his daughter, Hillary, age 8, who suffered from a failing kidney for most of her life, not long ago obtained a kidney transplanted from a young man, age 18, who died in a crash when he lost control of his all-terrain racer at the county fair. Hillary's father counts his blessings, all the while recognizing that his joy rises from another's grief. He gives thanks for the ultimate generosity of the donor, and wonders how far he would go beyond his own ethical boundaries if that's what it takes to save his daughter.
If his daughter had no other way to live, he asks, would he accept parts from an animal or human clone if they were stocked, available and promising. "My ethical reservations would give way to my desire to keep her alive," he concludes in an essay in The New York Times. "Ultimately, families, not politicians, should resolve the dilemma of whether artificial organs or organs from different species should be transplanted in their own family members."
This was clearly not said lightly, and yet, pitting the personal against the political gets to the heart of decisions governing medical and technological advances. Ethical values in the abstract are considerably easier to support than those that affect us personally.
We do not always respond to the hard questions with consistency. When Mike Dukakis, in a presidential debate in 1988, gave an abstract answer to a hard question of how he would deal with a man who raped his wife, wrapping his answer in legalese rather than emotion from his gut, Americans were unforgiving. Where was this man's passion? No one would have wanted President Dukakis to seek revenge, but nearly everyone wanted Dukakis the husband to show a little outrage and anger.
Good people who are not troubled by specific diseases that might be helped by cloned cells no doubt find it easier to consider the ethics of the situation than those whose feel the cold breath of the Grim Reaper on the back of their necks. Therapeutic cloning with the promise of a cure for Alzheimer's, diabetes or spinal cord injury lead the afflicted (and their friends and families) to argue for extended stem cell research.
Moral absolutists sometimes change their minds. Leon Kass, the respected physician and biochemist who is chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, once described in vitro fertilization as "a degradation of parenthood," but over time he came to see the way it enhanced the lives of nearly a million infertile couples. The scientific laboratory in this instance did not usher in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," though many thought it would. Instead, it brought joy to many families.
Stem cell research, which President Bush limited to those cells derived from human embryos already destroyed, is nevertheless advancing on new cells drawn from new embryos - but with a strict distinction. Work on the new cells must be financed privately with no help from the taxpayer. The National Institutes of Health supports this interpretation of the law, and senior officials in the Bush administration approved it, but it adds a controversial dimension to the conflict between private and public ethics.
When the Council on Bioethics produced its report on the moral issues surrounding human cloning, it prescribed a full examination of the complex issues emerging as science competes with human worth. The accelerated advance of science in modern times often outstrips our moral capacity to discipline it. Standing at the brink of transcending nature, we, like Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Faustus, enjoy a rush of exhilaration.
But who will pay the price of such progress? That's the question that adds nuance to the overlapping concerns of the personal and the political, the tensions between individual rights and scientific research. How we answer that question won't become literature, but it will tell us who gets to play God.