In August 2001, President Bush went on primetime TV to announce to the nation his decision on funding embryonic research, but he had a surprise up his sleeve. I remember that night well. I was closeted in a downtown Washington studio with his speech crackling in my ear and journalists waiting for instant comments. I remember telling them that perhaps even more important than the stem-cell decision was the President's follow-up announcement that he was creating a President's Council on Bioethics and appointing Leon Kass as its chairman.
While Kass's tenure has been stormy (the mainstream press has alternated between ignoring and misrepresenting the council's work), his achievement has been unique. Under his guidance, the councila much more diverse body than most Americans have been led to believe)has issued more reports that take human life and human dignity seriously than the rest of the mainstream bioethics world put together.
No government on the face of the earth has ever issued documents like those of the President's Council on Bioethics. It is small wonder that there were protests when he addressed the main annual bioethics meeting. Kass has so annoyed American Journal of Bioethics editor Glenn McGee that McGee has been driven to welcome the appointment of Kass' successor, Edmund Pellegrino, in fulsome terms. (Since Pellegrino is a conservative Catholic and McGee a sadly typical modern bioethicist, this is to my mind about as great a compliment as Leon Kass could get!)
After years of admiration from afar, I first met Kass shortly after my arrival in the US back in 1991, and I am honored to count him as a friend as well as a colleague. Since the beginnings of the revolution in genetics and reproductive technology, no one has seen with such clarity where this technology is heading and set out his case with such eloquence.
Kass started out as a brilliant M.D./Ph.D. researcher at the National Institutes of Health, but soon shifted to taking in the bigger picturehe has for many years taught the humanities at the University of Chicago. He counts civil-rights activism in the Mississippi of the 60s and the reading of C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man among his formative experiences. Indeed, the astonishing insights of Lewis' brief and profound essay have found no better interpreter. Working with one foot inside the Jewish tradition (one of his many books is a very large one on Genesis), he has helped shape a public language for the fundamental questions of bioethics. And he looks to what Catholic thinkers, especially, are fond of calling natural law.
Kass values science and medicine as much as any M.D./Ph.D. could. And yet he values human dignity, which must be the context for our efforts in technology if they are to serve us and not vice versa. If you read just one of the President's Council documents from the Kass years, perhaps it should be Beyond Therapy. It offers a window on the greatest questions that confront the human race: How do we draw lines between therapy (medicine's traditional role) and enhancement (changing human nature itself)? If you want to learn more about Leon Kass, you could check out my interview with him that Christianity Today carried shortly after he was appointed.
Remember California's $6 billion Proposition 71? The "stem cell agency" has had its funding held up, perhaps for years due to court challenges. Turns out the agency had come up with a bizarre method of funding its first grants: Non-profits are to lend it research money, knowing they may not get it back.
Back in Brave New Britain, a "virgin birth" has been announced. Well, not quite. But "parthenogenesis" is in line to make embryos for research by splitting an egg and not needing a sperm. And, moving from one-parent reproduction to a three-parent team-game, the nucleus of a normal embryo will be inserted into another eggthis time, not for experiments, but for live birth.
Face transplants raise some strange ethical issues: This is not quite the same as switching your liver or even your heart, as you will then look like the person whose face you have acquired. There are also some serious ethical issues involved in what is still a thoroughly experimental procedure. But this is no longer something out of Face/Off.
Not many people know what the 25-year-old law Bayh-Dole means to the medicine industry. In a fascinating assessment, Fortune magazine lays bare the immense consequencessome entirely unintendedof this law that enables universities and researchers to profit, sometimes hugely, from their inventions.
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Previous Life Matters columns include:
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)
Brave New Puppy | Introducing our new life ethics weblog. (Aug. 10, 2005)
Britain Leads the (Wrong) Way | Embryos to be screened for cancer risk, "danger genes." (Aug. 17, 2005)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.