When I interviewed Leon Kass for Christianity Today on his appointment to chair the President's Council on Bioethics back in 2002, I asked why he got into bioethics. One reason he gave was a short and stunning essay by C. S. Lewis.
As the world awaits the Narnia movie, and Lewis's extraordinary work receives the acclaim of a fresh generation, nothing demonstrates his genius like that little essay with the strange title, The Abolition of Man. It runs to just over a dozen pages. Not only are they the most profound pages he ever wrote, they may also be the most significant pages written by any writer of the 20th century. They are certainly the most relevant to the technological challenges of the 21st century.
The Abolition of Man is readable, but its argument is tightly packed. It is spotted with references to classic literature, but it is hardly written from an ivory tower. Lewis was writingand, more importantly, thinkingin wartime. His examples of technology include Nazi propaganda on the radio and advanced weapons of war, as well as early biotechnologies such as contraception andlooking aheadthe manipulation of human genes. And he was not unaware of the terrible story of eugenics that was even then coming to its climax in the bestial "science" of the death camps.
Lewis's key idea is that technology gives us power, power to do good or to do evil and modern technologies give us more and more power. But such power is not simply "power over nature," as we tend to say. It is the power some people exercise over other people, with "nature" as their instrument.
Lewis foresees that the result of the use and abuse of our "power over nature" could be the end of human nature itself. Decades later, others saw that same truth, including Bill Joy, the techie pioneer who emerged as a secular prophet in our time with his April 2000 essay in Wired magazine "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" (another piece of essential reading for anyone interested in 21st century technology).
It would have been interesting to get Bill Joy and C. S. Lewis in a room together and listen to the conversation (no doubt over a beer, as was Lewis' way). Lewis' vision is remarkable, penetrating from the darkest days of the mid-20th century to an agenda that is only now emerging in the 21st. Bill Joy would perhaps be taken aback, but I don't think Lewis would be surprised by Joy.
In vitro under the microscope
We've all grown rather used to "in vitro fertilization," despite the fact that it remains a somewhat risky, often ineffective, and ethically uncertain way to make babies. In a refreshing look at one of its many problems, The New York Times zeroes in on the relationships that get hidden when gametes are used like legos:
Like most anonymous sperm donors, Donor 150 of the California Cryobank will probably never meet any of the offspring he fathered through sperm bank donations. There are at least four, according to the bank's records, and perhaps many more, since the dozens of women who have bought Donor 150's sperm are not required to report when they have a baby. But two of his genetic daughters, born to different mothers and living in different states, have been e-mailing and talking on the phone regularly since learning of each other's existence last summer. They plan to meet over Thanksgiving.
This heart-warming demonstration of the power of human genes has been made possibleas we might have guessedthrough the internet! Just as you can buy sperm from websites, the web is bringing siblings together by matching up kids with fathers like Donor 150. "The girls, Danielle Pagano, 16, and JoEllen Marsh, 15, connected through the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site that is helping to open a new chapter in the oldest form of assisted reproductive technology. The three-year-old site allows parents and offspring to enter their contact information and search for others by sperm bank and donor number. 'The first time we were on the phone, it was awkward,' Danielle said. 'I was like, "We'll get over it," and she said, "Yeah, we're sisters." It was so weird to hear her say that. It was cool.'"
Very cool indeedthe way it's meant to be!
Writer Amy Harmon comments, "The popularity of the Donor Sibling Registry, many of its registrants say, speaks to the sustained power of biological ties at a time when it is becoming almost routine for women to bear children who do not share a partner's DNA, or even their own."
Donor-conceived siblings, who "sometimes describe themselves as 'lopsided' or 'half-adopted,' can provide clues to make each other feel more whole, even if only in the form of physical details. Liz Herzog, 12, and Callie Frasier-Walker, 10, for instance, carry the same dimple near their right eye. 'She looks up to me,' said Liz, of Chicago, who was an only child before learning of Callie and six other half-siblings, but seemed to have had no trouble stepping into her older-sister role. Finding her brothers and sisters, Liz said, 'was the best thing in the world,' even if Callie does copy her sometimes, like when Liz got her hair dyed red and Callie did the same."
California's democracy on trial
It has been evident for a long time that debates about stem cells and cloning are actually about larger issues of principle. That's true on both sides. Many scientists claim they are seeking "freedom" for science, or a "right to research." Those who support restraints on such "freedoms" believe something else is at stake. In a democracy, no one has unfettered freedom to do what he or she may like. Scientists know this better than most, since everything they do in their labs is hedged around with rules and regulations, usually for very good reasons.
California's pro-cloning Proposition 71 set out to drive a coach and horses through the normal process of ethics and accountability by writing a "right to stem-cell research" into the state constitution, and funding it with vast sums from the public purse. So it is heart-warming to see an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle with the title "Science and Democracy." People are starting to think about all this, especially in the near-bankrupt Sunshine State where Prop. 71 perpetrated a vast fraud on the mostly well-meaning electorate, as has become increasingly clear.
According to the Chronicle, which, as it notes, endorsed 71, "Decisions regarding how this unique experiment in democracy is conducted will set precedent for what follows. It is far too important to leave to the scientists only."
The immediate controversy is about whether royalties should be paid to the state on inventions that result from its grants. Robert Klein, who headed the 71 campaign and is now the supreme of the Stem Cell Institute, has changed his tune.
The Chronicle asks the question: "Does it matter that Robert Klein, the author and chief promoter of Proposition 71, knew while he was promising the voters a return on their investment that the state might be forbidden to collect royalties from the biomedical research it invests in because of an arcane federal tax law?"
When the Chronicle asked him, this is how he replied: "Klein said in a telephone interview Friday that royalties might discourage research for diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease that require subsidies because so few individuals are affected by them."
Of course, this slippery argument can be used to prove far more than that. It is basic economics: Raise the cost, and fewer people will buy. Paying taxes on income from inventions and discoveries might discourage researchers. So let's give them all tax-free incomes and profits. Indeed, why don't we double their profits? That will surely lead to more cures, as their motivation will keep going upif cures at all costs are the goal. Californians are slowly waking up to the costly nightmare of its cloning proposition.
When in Korea
The scandal around Dr. Hwang, the world's leading embryonic stem-cell expert, continues to send shock-waves across the globe. The collapse of Hwang's hubristic scheme for a global network of stem-cell traffickers, based in Korea because its loose laws, has ironically come unstuck because of ethics.
The SF Chroniclewhich is doing some of the best reporting on these issueschronicles the slow collapse of Hwang's world. "The collapse is a setback for advocates of creating 'disease-specific' lines of stem cells, which involves insertion of DNA from patients into human eggs whose own DNA is first removed, a cloning technique known as 'somatic cell nuclear transfer.'"
Reading this, I expected someone to state that since the search for cures is so important, a detail like the unethical sourcing of eggs (using a procedure that can sometimes kill) should not stand in the way of science.
According to The Washington Post, a Dr. Roh has tried to fall on his sword to protect Hwang's fragile reputation. "It now appears that Roh did pay the womenabout $1,500 eachaccording to Roh's comments in Chosun Ilbo. He said he did so without Hwang's knowledge. That detail might help clear Hwang's reputation."
But it would seem unlikely that Gerald Schatten, the U.S.-based expert whose withdrawal caused the furor, would have pulled out without suspecting Hwang of something much more serious than having a dishonest collaborator.
Art Caplan's spin
In a characteristically punchy op-ed, filled with efforts at spin, misstatements, and elegant half-truths, the media's favorite "bioethicist," Arthur Caplan, and his former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania Glenn McGee claim that the Hwang disaster offers an argument in favor of U.S. funding for cloning and destructive embryo research.
Caplan and McGee flippantly dismisses the very serious ethical charges that have been brought against Hwang, saying, "Taking eggs from an employee smacks of coercion. Paying for them smacks of bad judgment." But they go on to blame it all on the Bush funding policy. If only we funded embryo cloning, then we could regulate it and it would not be done over there because it could be done here.
Aside from a not-so-hidden put-down for Korean science, the Caplan-McGee line begs more questions than we can raise. Korea has not banned cloning research; it regulates it and funds ityet the funds for Hwang's experiments were apparently private anyway. And, as anyone who has followed this debate knows, these experiments are legal in many U.S. states, and are also, relatively, not particularly costly.
A footnote to the Hwang cloning fiasco
In a PR statement they may live to regret, the South Korean government and its citizens have begun to try and defend the infamous Hwang by painting his critics as Western cultural imperialists. Even most of the pro-cloning liberals among us do not approve of egg harvesting from young women researchers whose careers depend on the great professorin this case, Professor Hwang.
According to an Associated Press report, Choi Hee-joo said this: "The scientists donated their eggs 'voluntarily for the success of the research by sacrificing themselves,' Choi said. He said the donations were made according to values consistent with Eastern culture and shouldn't be looked at from the standpoint of Western culture." Quite apart from the fact that Hwang lied about these "donations" from junior researchers, and seems therefore to have been well aware of "Western" values in science, it is depressing to consider that the Korean government deems it appropriate for women to respond to such "sacrificial" pressures.
I noted last month that the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, which was approved this fall as a consensus statement by every nation, states with great importance that cultural-diversity claims cannot be used to undermine basic human rights. I did not expect to find the problem illustrated quite so soon.
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Previous Life Matters columns include:
Inventing Ethics | A collaborator walks out on the South Korean cloning genius, citing ethical lapses. (Nov. 18, 2005)
The Killing Fields of Holland: Next It's the Kids | From the Netherlands to California, from stem cells to nanotechnology, how we treat life matters. (Nov. 9, 2005)
Nations United on Bioethics | But is anybody in the West reading the new declaration? (Oct. 19, 2005)
Dr. Frist's Dilemma | The Majority Leader's contradictions mirror the opinions of the public at large. (Oct. 11, 2005)
Cloning Still Haunts California | Remember Prop. 71? Stem-cell research supporters hope voters don't remember the promises they made. (Oct. 5, 2005)
Leon Kass, a Bioethics Legend, Steps Down | The man who led the President's Council on Bioethics brought protests from the industry and directed groundbreaking studies. (Sept. 21, 2005)
A Manufactured Womb of One's Own | The commodification of children and an admission of stem-cell hype. (Sept. 8, 2005)
The Stem-Cell Conspiracy | The Washington Post muddles a major breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, while the U.K. marches blindly on. (Aug. 29, 2005)
Britain Leads the (Wrong) Way | Embryos to be screened for cancer risk, "danger genes." (Aug. 17, 2005)
Brave New Puppy | Introducing our new life ethics weblog. (Aug. 10, 2005)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.