Science and ethics have always had an uneasy relationship, and we're drawn to observe it. We're fascinated by the fanatical Dr. Faustus, in whom the devil was constantly driving to break through the boundaries of mortality. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll intended to put their genius in the service of others, but wind up making a mess of everything. Mythical though they are, they go where no man has gone before, creating monsters that swiftly slip beyond their control.
Though the stuff of fiction, they're nevertheless rooted in reality and are especially needed today to provoke thinking about the need to link scientific ambition and respect for the dignity of human life. We inhabit a time and place in human history rife with irresistible scientific experimentation that threatens to outrun the ability of traditional morality to regulate it.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the debates undertaken by the President's Council on Bioethics, which confront the changes in the biological revolution by seeking reflection on what Leon Kass, its chairman, calls "the full range of human goods at stake in bioethical dilemmas." That's why the 18 panelists include philosophers, lawyers, a journalist (who was trained as a medical doctor), political scientists as well as academic scientists and doctors of philosophy.
"For the Council, 'bioethics' is not an ethics based on biology," writes Leon Kass, chairman of the council," but an ethics in the service of bios - of a life lived humanly, a course of life lived not merely physiologically, but also mentally, socially, culturally, politically, and spiritually."
The council probes at every corner at that busy intersection of biology and biography, with an eye for where to place the stoplights and the pedestrian crossings, mindful that the signals of stop, go and caution require vigilance in looking out for detours, potholes and reckless drivers.
This latest report of the Council is entitled "Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies" and probably includes the most controversial discussions to date, as it explores specific policy considerations for the most recent high tech medical discoveries.
The timely report arrives shortly after South Korean scientists announced that they produced their first cloned human embryo, and a scientist at Harvard said he had developed 17 new lines of human stem cells for research supported by private money.
The most contentious issues relate to embryonic stem cell research and the lack of government funding for it. All panelists agree that research on embryos after 10 to 14 days of life is "either wrong or imprudent," and should be prohibited. But they don't agree on which issues to ban, regulate or fund research before that time. All members oppose cloning to produce children, but they don't agree on whether cloning in the earliest stages could be used for purposes of medical research.
Different points of view are included and should be required reading to encourage the public to think hard about the complex moral concerns of high-tech science when it is capable of "creating" life.
For some critics, any research on any embryonic cells is immoral. Others (including me) favor research at the earliest stages, because it holds the potential for treatment of diseases and disabilities such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, diabetes and different forms of paralysis.
The most interesting recommendations in the new report apply to the "reproductive practices" that take place simply because no one is paying attention to them, and there's nothing in the law to prohibit them. These include placing human embryos into animal uteruses; creating a pregnancy to obtain body parts for use in the treatment of another person; or mixing the egg and sperm of a human and an animal to create a hybrid of unspeakable horror.
This new report is meant to nudge Congress toward legislating policy in this most sensitive of sciences. Although it's unlikely at this juncture to do more than stimulate a crucial conversation and to raise public consciousness in this expanding field, the council's conclusions make them the right place to start thinking about gathering data on reproductive technologies.
We know less about these technologies than we've been led by the popular press to believe. Leon Kass urges us to consider ways to balance the worthy ends of scientific exploration without eroding human freedom and dignity. That's a tall order.
When President Bush appointed the Council in November 2001, he urged its members to be aware of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation, to be guided in their deliberations by "both intellect and heart, by both our capabilities and our conscience." This report demonstrates how the council has lived up to that charge.