President George W. Bush made two announcements in his televised speech on August 9, 2001. First, he would permit federal funding for experiments on stem cells derived from human embryos, but only on cells derived from embryos already killed by August 9. Second, he would appoint a Presidential Advisory Council on Bioethics, led by Leon Kass, to review this and other issues.

Longtime professor on the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, Kass is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in biochemistry who has a background in National Institutes of Health research. He was a founding member of the board of the Hastings Center, the nation's premier bioethics think tank. I met with Kass at his American Enterprise Institute office in Washington. (Kass noted that his comments do not reflect the position of the federal government.)

Last August, before that fateful day September 11, the biggest issue in American public and political life was bioethics. And people were saying that the defining issue of the Bush presidency would be the President's view on embryo stem cell experiments. It's hard now to remember the context in which the President's televised speech to the nation, on August 9, was focused not on Al Qaeda but on embryos. In that speech he said he would establish an advisory council on bioethics, and he named you as its chair. That raised huge expectations for many of us, as we see these issues as the most important challenges facing the human race. Tell me how you see the potential of the council, its task, and your own opportunity as the one who was named to lead it.

I do think that the biological revolution, of which we have seen only the very earliest stages, is a matter of momentous and lasting importance. Extraordinary powers are being gathered to intervene in the bodies and minds of human beings. These powers were sought initially for the laudable purposes of healing disease and relieving suffering. But they also force us to consider, in the most profound way, the basic elements of our humanity and what it means to live a human life. They can make inheritable changes in human nature. They can intervene in all manner of human activities, they touch birth, they touch death, they touch questions of bodily integrity as one moves organs around or implants other things in the human body.

And it seems to me we stand at a critical point. In a way, it is given to this generation to decide whether we can use these powers for their limited goods and shape them to ends that contribute to human flourishing, or whether these powers will be used increasingly to push us down the road to a "Brave New World" in which certain humanitarian goals are realized but only at the cost of the things that make human life really worth living?

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Tell me about the Council, and how you see its work.

I've thought that about these matters for more than 30 years. I do think that President Bush had an intimation that as he sought to resolve the stem cell issue he was discovering something far bigger. The fact that he did take so long to deliberate about that question shows it was not just a political decision on his part. He was seeking to do the right thing, and he found what is for him a moral solution to a difficult dilemma. But I think he understood that this was just the tip of the iceberg of the whole set of questions and challenges that were coming.

And in the mandate that has been given to the Council by the White House, to advise the President in the difficult decisions that he may have to make in this area, our first task is to do fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of these advances in biomedical science and technology. Not just to pronounce them good, bad, or indifferent. Not to say "Are you for it or against it?" But at least to make vivid to everybody as best we can what it actually means to acquire the power to create human life in a laboratory or intervene in the human genome, or to move body parts around or to put computer chips in the human brain. These are powers which we acquire, admittedly, to begin with, for humanitarian ends, but to have those powers in human hands is already to change the world—apart from the uses that will follow. And our first task is to try to think that through.

Second, of course, we shall seek to delineate as best we can the ethical issues, and social issues, that particular advances may raise and to try to contribute to the public understanding of these questions and serve as a national forum for discussion. Finally, we need also to explore ways for fruitful international collaboration around some of these matters.

We are, therefore, free to try to develop the various arguments at the highest level and to bring forward the best thinking, which I think is important to do here. This is not a case where we've got something good versus evil. This is a case where we've got competing goods. And it's very important that everybody in the discussion acknowledge that the other side also has something vital to defend.

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So, for example, people who care about the sanctity of life should understand that the scientists who wish to experiment on embryos are also defending something very important when they seek in this way to cure disease. And the scientists have to understand that people who worry about the fate of the embryos are not simply practitioners of some narrow religious doctrine but are defending the dignity of our humanity. If we can at least get the arguments out there in as rich and deep a way as possible, I think we will have made a contribution to the public understanding of these questions.

So what kind of people has the President named to this body? I note these are not the usual suspects; they aren't the bioethics people who have dominated these bodies in the past. What kind of people are they?

Well, there is the usual mix from across the various fields of study. I don't want to call them experts; I rather distrust the "expert" label. But there are people who have backgrounds in medicine and science. There are people who have worked in the area of law and public policy. There are people from philosophy and theology and there are people in the humanities and social sciences generally. Some of these people I suggested but nominations came in from all over. The selections were made in the White House from a list of several hundred people.

I think that what distinguishes this group of people, in addition to their high competence and academic distinction, is that they have been chosen with some view to their openness, to their thoughtfulness. They somehow recognize that this is not just tinkering with a little innovation here and a new regulation there. I think they see that in some way the human future is at stake in these questions and that they are willing, with fear and trembling, to search for the wisest possible course as opposed to the cleverest possible arrangements.

This is a council on bioethics rather than a council of bioethicists. And bioethics I take to be the domain of ethical concerns that arise because human life ordinarily lived is challenged by ideas and practices coming from modern biomedical science and technology. To address these concerns adequately, we need to go to deeper ground than that now occupied by mainstream bioethicists. The Greek word bios didn't simply mean life in the sense of animal life. Bios was a human life, the human life that is lived humanly. It finds its place really in the word biography, the writing of a human life. Biology meaning the science of all life is a late notion.

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So, bioethics literally speaking would mean the serious ethical attention to human life lived humanly. It seems to me our task is to address the challenges raise whenever "real life" lived existentially or experientially meets the results of the sort of life studied scientifically. And that, it seems to me, is not so much the project for a narrow academic discipline, as it is for thoughtful reflection about the riches and goodness of human life, as they might be fostered and threatened by these new advances.

That raises an interesting question we could talk about at length another time—the emergence of bioethics as a quasi-disciplinary field, which essentially is seeking to address issues as broad as human experience. And there is the allied notion that there are certain persons who are "experts" in this whole field, and who become so by means of a degree program. That has always seemed to me to be very strange.

Well, I think it is a very strange thing. The American field of bioethics began really in the late 1960s—pick your starting point, but institutionally it began with the Hastings Center and with the Kennedy Institute in Georgetown. In fact, the Kennedy Institute of Bioethics was the first place that had the word "bioethics" in its title, though the term had been coined earlier by a scientist named Van Potter, for whom bioethics meant a new naturalistic ethics founded on modern biological science that was to take the place of traditional ethics, whether religious or philosophical.

But the people who founded the field of bioethics didn't study bioethics. They came together out of a recognition that the new biology raised profound questions. Some of us came from science, some came from philosophy, some came from theology, some came from law, some sociology. It was a very heterogeneous group of people who were united in the recognition that there were deep questions here. I'm not sure that bioethics is, in fact, a real discipline. You can't, I think, tackle these kinds of deep human questions by applying some abstract bioethical principles without consulting their roots in the deepest ground of philosophical or religious thought.

I think what's happened is partly an accident of the academic fashions in American universities during the times in which this began. The civil rights movement and the Sixties had preceded it. There was a certain kind of emphasis on rights language, a certain suspicion of professional authority, a certain contractarian view of how you did ethics. And the field was taken over very quickly by a certain kind of secular rationalist analytical thinking. Even the people trained in religious ethics somehow thought that the insights of their religious traditions were parochial and not relevant and they chose to play by the rules of the "academic" view.

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Which is of course very strange, the notion that somehow the religious traditions which still dominate both the thinking of the public and so many of our assumptions about our public values somehow need to be excised from our thinking if we are to have a serious conversation about bioethics. I'm interested to note that, in a sense, what you have done, or what the President has done with your assistance in putting together this council, has been to go back to a genuinely multidisciplinary approach to this conversation rather than to delegate it to people who have the title "bioethicist." You're reopening the question.

I am trying to reopen the question. I mean there are people on the council who have worked and written in the field of bioethics and even are welcomed into the fraternity. I myself am a card-carrying member of the Hastings Center and was for 26 years on their board of directors.

Some of the earlier bioethics councils have been set up to be a mixture of scientists and bioethicists as if bioethics were a countervailing technique of solving problems science produces but cannot solve itself. The idea seemed to be that you had science, which was morally neutral in its findings, and then you imported these other people from bioethics who were there to supply what the science was missing.

By the way, the same thing is going on in medical schools where they've established departments of medical ethics in hospitals. A tacit assumption is that medicine as ordinarily practiced is morally neutral and you need these outside experts to somehow supply the ethics. But in practice it winds up treating ethics as simply another technical subspecialty, just like science itself. And out of the clash of these two things you find somehow a compromise that purports to be ethical wisdom—the scientists say this, the ethicists say that, and a deal is brokered. The net effect of this approach has so often been that the ethicists wring their hands as they confront the dilemmas raised by the scientists, but ultimately they pronounce blessings on whatever it is the scientists want to do.

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And of course the ethicists increasingly have been focused on procedural issues, with autonomy as the fulcrum of every decision, in place of any engagement with substantive right-or-wrong issues of ethics.

Well, they're interested really in defending personal autonomy against a certain kind of tyranny of expertise. And they have been concerned with questions of access and distributive justice with respect to the benefits of medical science. That's also an important issue. But they have not, by and large, stepped up to the plate on the questions of humanization versus dehumanization. Those are not terms that they care about, and that's partly because so many of them are either utilitarians or, shall we say, descended from the utilitarian line. And that means that in ethics they're rationalists. Indeed, it's in keeping with a certain strand also in American society to devalue embodiment and not to talk about the whole human being.

But if one is going to take up the question of what these developments signify for what it means to be a human being, anybody who cares about this subject would, without any sectarian prejudices, want to get help from wherever it can be gotten. And it would be just foolish to rule out conversation with the wisest teachers of the religious traditions—which, if they teach about anything, teach about that.

Let's move to your own background, and your sense of what has prepared you to take this role—what are the resources in your own life that you are seeking to bring to bear?

That's a very tough question, because I can give an answer but the truths of these things are somewhat of a mystery to oneself. To give a quick answer, I suffer from a late onset, probably lethal, rabbinic gene, which has gradually, gradually expressed itself and it's taken me over.

You don't want a biography, but I think a number of things count. I'm a first-generation American raised in a Yiddish-speaking, proudly Jewish but religiously secular home, with no religious rearing whatsoever. There were socialist leanings, and strong moral teachings. My parents were both immigrants, neither of them schooled. But the moral questions and the question of how to live righteously and nobly and well and with dignity were the questions of their home. I don't just mean that we were exhorted to be good, but there were dinner conversations about "What do you think of so-and-so's behavior?"

So one was somehow encouraged to pay attention to conduct and to character. As to the integrity of both of my parents—I can't shine their shoes. They provided remarkable moral examples, and promoted a kind of explicit moral conversation. So moral questions have always been some of the most interesting questions for me.

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Then I went to the University of Chicago College at a very early age. And there I acquired, for the first time, the realization that there were real questions about matter for which previously I had only had answers. And among those questions were certain questions about the philosophy of biology and about organism and about whole and part. Although I was headed for biology, I was introduced to some of the philosophical assumptions that are at the foundations of modern science—to which we mostly just don't pay any attention, because we see science as progressive and believe that more is better and truer. These philosophical seeds were planted early.

I was headed for a career in academic medicine. I finished medical school, did an internship, and went back and did a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Then in 1965 my wife and I went to Mississippi to do civil rights work. I came back with this question: Why was there more honor and dignity and things that I admired in these uneducated black farmers in Mississippi with whom we lived, than in my well-educated, privileged fellow graduate students at Harvard University? I had been taught that education, opportunity, and privilege would banish poverty and superstition, and enable human beings to flower morally into the kinds of creatures that only the stinginess of nature and their own ignorance prevented them from being. If that were true, why this discrepancy between these very smart people who were around me, many of whom you would not want your sister to marry, and the very fine, simple, uneducated men and women we met in Mississippi?

I now had a real question, because if the simple Enlightenment progressivist view of morals built on a purely secular foundation was correct, this couldn't be true. And if what I believed was wrong, what was in its place?

That began a series of readings. A friend gave me Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences to read, and later I read Aristotle's Ethics and Physics with him. He also gave me C. S. Lewis's Abolition of Man to read, and Huxley's Brave New World. And I was off. I learned that, on the side of science, there were certain questionable assumptions about nature, and human nature, that deliberately set the important metaphysical questions aside in order to get on with the project to gain power to predict and control events. And on the other side, I discovered certain questions about the foundations of our morals that the advances in science all threaten to make more complicated.

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I also learned gradually that what I thought had been the socialism of my home was, in fact, a secularized version of prophetic Judaism. It was the prophets without the Law. This was true for my parents' whole generation. Many of these people who fell for Marxism did so, I think, out of a longing for justice and a belief that one didn't have to wait for the messianic age, one could build it here and now. Especially when our children were born, I realized that one shouldn't somehow live as a parasite on the tradition that one knew nothing about.

So I joined a synagogue, I began to do some studying of the Torah. I don't regard myself as a good enough Jew by a long shot, either in terms of learning or practice. But I've come to treasure the biblical strand of our Western tradition more than the purely philosophical strand that flows from Athens.

These issues have come together in a dramatic way in the debate about human cloning. Back in 1997, Dolly the sheep burst on the imagination of the West and gripped it almost as a rival to Frankenstein as the image of mad science, humanity undermined, technology out of control, as immediately people leapt to the notion that if you can do it to sheep you can do it to people. And the question is, what do we do about it? Many of us see cloning as the epitome of the challenges that biotechnology is posing to human dignity—and the struggle to ban it as the first great pitched battle between the new technology and the future of human dignity.

You have played a particular role in helping to focus this conversation over the past year. Perhaps you could say a little about how you see cloning in this broad context. And how you've come to your own conclusions about it.

Well I sort of cut my bioethics teeth on the subject of cloning. I first wrote about it in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post in 1967 after they cloned the first tadpoles. And I've been opposed to human cloning from the very beginning. I have seen it as one of these emblematic instances of what it is that is at stake and what it is we should be worried about.

It seems to me that the public is rightly upset about human cloning and the first reaction before one gets used to it is one largely of repugnance and revulsion—people sense that something important is being transgressed here. But it's very hard to say in words just what that is. Cloning, I think, is important because it represents a very clear, powerful, and immediate example in which we are in danger of turning procreation into manufacture, sometimes referred to as "designer babies," in which parents and scientists work their private eugenic visions on the child-to-be and impose it on members of the next generation. A child, therefore, ceases to be welcomed as a gift, as a mysterious stranger whose genetic independence from the parents is an emblem of the kind of independence that all of our children are raised to acquire and instead becomes a being to work out the particular vision that the parents have. And so, it seems to me, part of the reason that this bothers people is that it strikes them as a kind of degrading of parenthood and a perversion of the right relation between parents and children.

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There are also questions about identity and individuality that come really from the fact that the clone, while not a perfect copy of the original, is at least brought into being out of a desire to produce something like a replica of the original. Our natural genetic distinctiveness is also a kind of emblem of the unique, never before to have lived and never to be repeated again trajectory of an individuated human life from birth to death. But in cloning, a blueprint of a life that has already lived is somehow supposed to be reenacted once again. People find it hard to articulate their concerns in these ways, but they sense that what we're really talking about are efforts to redesign what a human being shall be.

This past year, I must have debated cloning half a dozen times on college campuses with Greg Pence, one of the most articulate cloning advocates, who argues again and again that this is simply an issue of reproductive freedom, and to that extent is not a new issue at all—just another option, building on in vitro fertilization and other technologies that have become standard.

Well, we do, in fact, restrict so called reproductive freedom. We do not allow polygamy, we do not allow incest, we do not allow the buying and selling of babies so people can realize their reproductive aspirations in the case of unwelcomed infertility.

The so-called right to reproduce is not an unlimited right.

Moreover, while you could sympathize perhaps with the aspiration of those who seek to replace a dead child with a copy, or to copy a parent or a relative or even a celebrity, I would be inclined to say that to create a child to fulfill those expectations could be regarded as a form of child abuse. It would be unsafe, biologically speaking, but beyond that these are experiments in identity, in being made a design of somebody else. If you want simply to put it in the language of research ethics, these are unethical experiments on the child to be who cannot give consent to have that experiment foisted upon him. If you put it in those terms, it seems to me it fits with all kinds of other restrictions we place on people's freedom to do things to their children and to do things to experimental subjects.

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Now the one area in the whole bioethics agenda where the religious constituency has been deeply engaged is, of course, abortion. Indeed, much of the opposition to cloning from religious conservatives comes essentially because it's seen as a subset of abortion, since it results in the abuse of the embryo, rather than because it's seen as an issue in itself. And it seems to many of us that a vital task is to help religious conservatives move into a much more wide-ranging embrace of the implications of the biotech agenda. But it would be helpful if you could speak a little about your perspective on the abortion debate and on the bearing that has on these new questions.

This is really a very complicated and difficult subject and I'm sure I cannot do it justice. I want to say that these matters both are and are not connected to the abortion controversy. How it is that one looks upon nascent human life is part of what it means to stand reverently or irreverently before our humanity. I don't think you need to believe that the two-day-old human embryo is a "person" or a full human being, fully one of us, to feel that something is being violated if one is casual about its fate or its destruction. And the abortion controversy, though it has been largely fought over the question of the fate of the fetus, is also important for what it says about our stance toward procreation and children altogether. It's a short step from the belief that "every child should be a wanted child," the slogan that defends abortion, to the belief that a child exists to satisfy our wants and that if the child doesn't measure up to our wants, we go to genetic engineering to improve him . . . to get the features we want, in the perfect product.

And there is also a coarsening of the sensibilities of a society that practices abortion which may carry over into how it looks upon its children that are born.

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But the biotechnologies raise equally grave, if not even graver, questions above and beyond the so-called life questions. What's wrong with Huxley's Brave New World is not that there is destruction of embryos; it is that it has pushed to their logical conclusion our humanitarian principles to cure disease, relieve poverty, eliminate war, relieve suffering, eliminate grief, with the result that human life has been robbed of almost everything that makes it worthwhile. There is no art, there is no science, there is no religion, there's no love, there's no friendship, there's no self-governance. It's a world of trivial pursuits and shallow attachments.

And that means we should be worried not only about where the powers are acquired and whether embryos are sacrificed to attain them, but we should worry even more about the ends that are being served by the uses of these powers and the consequences of pursuing them without shoring up certain other human goods.

Both sides, I think, have tended to settle really on what I would call the basement level of this discussion. The basement is important because if there is no foundation there is no building. On the other hand what we're really, I think, arguing about is whether, when this building is finished, the ceiling is going to be so close to the floor that the human beings that are going to live in this basement will necessarily be midgets, humanly speaking. And that's why, as a very shrewd commentator has suggested, as bad as it might be to destroy creatures made in God's image, it might be very much worse to be creating them after images of one's own.

Here at the outset of the biotech century, it seems to me that so much of this will be resolved for good and for ill in our own generation. As you look forward, and as you have one eye on the techniques and the burgeoning possibilities that defy the untutored imagination, and the other on the fragile human being and its potential for flourishing, what do you see? Do you have a sense that we are going to be able to affirm and assert the priority of human dignity in the face of these things? And to what extent do you sense that the steady collapse of our culture and its moral vision is going to undermine our best efforts at setting a human frame around these wondrous new things? Will technique plus marketing write the next chapter?

That's a very hard question. I think the technical is not just the machinery. The technical is at bottom a disposition to all of life. Jacques Ellul, I think, had it right. It is fundamentally a mentality that formulates all of life's questions as problems, and problems demand solutions, not a quest or longing for answers. This technological way of thinking has infected even ethics, which is supposed to be thinking about the good, but instead is trying to solve various kinds of problems so we can go on to the next problem. And I would be, I think, just a fool to be simply naïvely optimistic about the prospects of overturning this approach to ethics and indeed to all of life.

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But it's really only in the last few years that more and more people have acquired something of the sense of the importance of these questions. At the same time, it's only in recent years that they've also acquired the passionate zeal for what biotechnology also has to offer. One of the regrettable things about the stem cell discussion, if I may say so, was the hype that the proponents used, taking advantage of desperate people's desires for cures and seeming to promise them cures overnight or just around the corner. But truth to tell we don't even have animal examples of anything remotely resembling a cure for any of these diseases. And this would not have been the first time. Fifteen years ago it was fetal research which was supposed to solve all of these dilemmas and help the lame to walk and the demented to think again. So we've got to be very cautious.

Of course, what is absolutely new is the economic power of biotech. And we've just seen the beginning. Whether the biotech companies will go the way of the dot-coms or whether they will, in fact, grow with burgeoning power is an open question, though I suspect they will learn to effective in doing the things that are promised.

By the way, the neuroscience area, now absolutely in its infancy, is, I think, much more important than genetics. Genetics offers only crude and indirect control over the activities that really make us human, but the powers coming from the neurosciences will go directly to work on the brain and changes in the mind will follow. And we know next to nothing of what we're going to know in 20 years, 50 years and so on.

So, at the moment, we have on one side scientists with prestige, knowledge and power backed by powerful economic interests. And on the other side there are those of us equipped only with our ability to raise hard questions about human values. How many divisions does the pope have? In this discussion, not very many.

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That's why it's important not simply to mount the moral argument, but to think about possible new institutional arrangements domestically, and internationally, that would at least get some discussion going and down the road develop regulatory mechanisms that would be able to ward off some of the things that are most to be worried about and feared.

One of the things that I hope our council will be able to address is not just the moral arguments or even just the human goods that are at stake, but also to do some institutional thinking so that after this council disappears there might be some proposals for institutions that would take up these questions and have some kind of regulatory force. In the absence of that, it does seem to me that the steamroller will simply roll its own course down the slippery slope.

But perhaps we should not ignore one last resource on the other side. There are certain resiliencies in the human spirit. We've seen it in this country since September 11. The culture might be said to be debased. And many of our moral notions and cultural forms are enfeebled because they have lost all ties to their roots. But, at least for now, we are still capable of remembering that there are things about "real life" to be treasured. And I would be slow to predict simply the disappearance of the regard for the things that make us human. I teach in the university set in a culture that is very debased; students come in with the most shallow thoughts and cynical opinions on the tips of their tongues. But if you put good books in front of them to read that force them to talk about love and friendship or citizenship or the virtues, it turns out they're more than capable of appreciating them. And the question is whether we can find the kind of discourse and the kinds of institutions that are truly liberal in the classical sense, capable of lifting our gaze and deepening our understanding.

So there are two things I should say. First, we have an opportunity to cultivate intellectual alternatives and opposition to mere technocratic thinking. Second, in addition to philosophical inquiry, we need help from the great religious traditions. Many people today sense this as well. On campuses, there is a renewed interest in religion. Twenty years ago when I taught a course on the organism, the class was filled with materialists and I had to make the argument for something other than materialism. Now, if I get a class together, I have to make the argument that materialism might have something to be said for it. Many, many young people sense there is more to life than mechanism, power and technique. The interest in religious questions and religious studies amongst the younger generation is palpable. Perhaps the events of September 11 and its aftermath provide an opportunity for thinking not only about public safety but more deeply about how best to spend our allotted three score and 10. If that happens then it seems to me a kind of thinking which is not technocratic has an opportunity for a renaissance in this country.

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