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What I'm Reading: The Case Against Perfection

Michael Sandel's The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in an the Age of Genetic Engineering is thoughtful, well-written, and, despite Sandel's academic credentials, accessible to any reader. It is also very short (128 very small pages), and thus it is a great place to start if you are interested in learning some of the basic ethical issues at stake in debates about athletic enhancement (steroids, etc.), designer children, eugenics, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research.

Sandel is a teacher at Harvard, and he served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics. This book arose from his conversations with other ethicists about genetic engineering. His prose is fluid. He conveys profound thoughts in readable language. For instance, he writes, "the deepest moral objection to [genetic] enhancement lies less in the perfection it seeks than in the human disposition it expresses and promotes. The problem is not that the parents usurp the autonomy of the child they design. (It is not as if the child could otherwise choose her genetic traits for herself.) The problem lies in the hubris of the designing parents, in their drive to master the mystery of birth" (p. 46). He returns to this phrase–"mastering the mystery"–throughout the book. His central claim lies in the thought that life is mysterious, a gift. It cannot be controlled or manipulated or mechanized.

This is a helpful and absorbing book, and Sandel goes to great lengths to ensure that his commitment to the "mysterious gift" of life is not the same as promoting a theistic view of life. In other words, although he insists that human life is given, he is not willing to acknowledge the origin of the giver. He is not willing to go one step further and posit a Creator God. As a result, his arguments should be accessible to individuals outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, and yet I found myself wondering if he was dodging the most significant question of all. If there is no God, then who exactly gives life? And what is there to stop us from seeing ourselves as the creators of life? And what is there to stop us from even seeing ourselves as having an obligation to cease the existence of certain kinds of life?

I don't agree with all of Sandel's conclusions. For instance, when it comes to embryonic stem-cell research, he advocates "respect" for the embryo, while still positing the ethical possibilities of using/destroying that embryo for the sake of medical advances. Here again, his reasoning seems faulty to me. He notes the distinction between a single grain of wheat and a heap of grain: "The fact that there is no nonarbitrary point when the addition of one more grain will bring a heap into being does not mean that there is no difference between a grain and a heap. Nor does it give us reason to conclude that a grain must be a heap" (p. 118). The thing is, a single grain of wheat will only become a heap if someone else adds grain. Grain to heap involves an outside agent. Embryo to baby will happen without such intentional outside intervention. Cells will divide and grow and form tissues and organs and a human person, unless their development is arrested from the outside.

Despite my objections, I recommend this book. I quoted from it earlier this week, and that same quotation bears repeating in conclusion:

"The ethic of giftedness, under siege in sports, persists in the practice of parenting. But here, too, bioengineering and genetic enhancement threaten to dislodge it. To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition. Parental love is not contingent on the talents and attributes the child happens to have. We choose our friends and spouses at least partly on the basis of qualities we find attractive. But we do not choose our children. Their qualities are unpredictable, and even the most conscientious parents cannot be held wholly responsible for the kind of child they have. That is why parenthood, more than other human relationships, teaches what the theologian William F. May calls an 'openness to the unbidden.'"

May we be open to the gift of life, as it is given to us.

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