Bush’s Bioethicist Worries About Fruits of Science

Posted April 14, 2004 at 11:11am

“I have to ask you, is Dolly a sheep?” says conservative bioethicist Leon Kass. His argument is that if Dolly was a cloned sheep — and it was — then a cloned human embryo has the potential to become a human baby. [IMGCAP(1)]

Kass, the controversial chairman of President Bush’s Commission on Bioethics, was disputing the claim made by advocates of cloning for medical research that the product really isn’t an embryo, a “life.”

I’m on their side of the bottom line — cloning should go forward — but as Kass told me in an interview, “One should not try to win this argument on the basis of terminological sleight of hand.”

Kass wants Congress to enact a moratorium on the research. Fortunately, it’s unlikely that will happen any time soon, but cloning is the subject of a furious debate. President Bush is against it, Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) is for it.

Advocates of therapeutic cloning, including scientific researchers, biotech companies and disease groups, claim that so-called “somatic cell nuclear transfer” does not produce a human embryo.

It’s slogan is “no sperm, no life,” an attempt to remove any moral onus from destroying the “entity” to harvest stem cells for potentially life-saving research.

Advocates contend that the SCNT process — involving removal of the nucleus from a female egg and replacing it with the nucleus from a donor’s cell — produces “something that has never existed before,” which will never be implanted in a woman and therefore should not be considered “human life.”

But Kass, in a Webcast I hosted this week, contended that the product is identical to the one which — in experiments with sheep, cats, mice, rabbits and goats — has resulted in a birth. Dolly, the sheep cloned in England in 1996, is the first and most famous case.

Scientists in South Korea have cloned human embryos for the first time and Kass insists that, even though no successful pregnancies have occurred in primates, “what you get in SCNT is an early-stage human embryo.

“Kill it if you want,” Kass challenged, “but don’t call it just a bag of cells.”

Challenging is what Leon Kass does. As a professor at the University of Chicago and author of five books and numerous articles, he challenges the notion that science should be free to produce anything it can in the name of “progress.”

Learned in the classics, philosophy, literature and the Bible, as well as science, Kass leads a movement — branded “neo-conservative” by its foes — which sees a danger of unbridled science producing a society resembling that in Aldous Huxley’s famed novel “Brave New World.”

In that society, people were kept docile with mind-calming drugs, babies were manufactured in artificial wombs to fulfill society’s needs for various classes of work, and no one wanted for anything — except their inherent human nature.

Kass’ opposition to cloning and his role as adviser leading Bush to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research has led adversaries to brand him “anti-science” and declare he has “a 16th century sensibility.”

In fact, I found him earnest, scholarly, widely informed, deeply moral and well-intentioned. Even if he is too conservative and pessimistic, his concerns are certainly thought-provoking.

The exchange over SCNT was part of a larger discussion, co-sponsored by the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Association for the Advancement of Science as part of its SAGE Crossroads program, on the desirability of research into the causes of aging.

Kass declared, “I am not a Luddite. I am not a hater of science. I esteem modern science and regard it as one of the great monuments to the human intellect even as I wonder about some of the uses of the technology.”

Kass is specifically worried about the consequences of scientific advances that will move beyond conquering the diseases of aging — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke and arthritis — to conquering the aging process itself and extending the maximum human lifespan from 100 years to 130 or 150.

Public health and medical discoveries increased average life expectancy in the United States from 47 years in 1900 to 79 today, and scientists estimate that if the diseases of aging were cured, life expectancy could go to 90 or so.

But genetic and biochemical research on fruit flies, worms and mice suggest that someday it might be possible to extend the maximum lifespan, meaning that “four, five or six generations might be alive at one time.”

He thinks that increased life expectancy and an aging society already have had negative effects on children and have lengthened adolescence and that lifespan extension might make vigorous “old” people reluctant to make way for the young, or innovative ideas.

Moreover, he worries that, “if people can look forward to living indefinitely, they will be less inclined to build cathedrals, write the B-minor Mass or write Shakespeare’s sonnets.

“Time is a gift,” he said, “but the prospect of endless time has the possibility of undermining our taking time seriously and making it count.” In Greek mythology, he notes, the immortal gods were bored and busied themselves watching the purposeful activities of mortals.

Kass said that his presidential council has no power to set policy and that he would not advise curbs on aging research, but hopes that scientific self-regulation might “somehow get control so that we can reap the benefits of research without paying the worst costs.”

Having interviewed many aging researchers, I’d say that their ability to extend the human lifespan is not imminent — particularly given current funding priorities — and that Kass’ concerns are largely speculative. But he’s a deep thinker and they are fascinating to contemplate.