Playing God

Bush's bioethics czar Leon Kass wants to criminalize lifesaving medical research as violating the natural order of things. Would he have opposed wiping out smallpox?

Published June 18, 2002 7:31PM (EDT)

In August, President George W. Bush appointed Leon Kass to head his Council on Bioethics, which is set to tackle such hot-button issues as stem-cell research, cloning, human genetics and longevity. The selection of Kass, a University of Chicago philosopher, is not good news for those who are sick from or dying of a disease that might be cured with embryonic stem-cell therapy. Kass, who believes that it may not be natural for humans to live so long in the first place, opposes the treatment, and in his current post he is prepared to criminalize the most important research of the century.

Scientists around the world are virtually unanimous in their belief that cloning human beings is a bad idea. The kinks need to be thoroughly worked out -- with animal research -- before human cloning can even be contemplated. It took almost 300 attempts to clone Dolly the sheep, and the failures were sad and unpredictable. Researchers, uninterested in repeating those failures with higher stakes, tend to agree, therefore, that doctors should not by allowed to implant cloned human blastocysts for the purpose of creating pregnancies.

In other words, scientists -- being rational people -- would prevent human cloning by corking up the essential bottleneck: pregnancy. This is why they have worked out protocols designed explicitly to prevent the implantation of a blastocyst into a womb.

But these protocols are not good enough for Kass, who maintains that we must quash any science, regardless of its utility or application, that might lead to human cloning. He is particularly worried about a procedure called nuclear transfer, an essential technique in both reproductive and therapeutic cloning. In this procedure the DNA is removed from an egg, and the DNA of the donor is substituted. The egg cell divides, creating a small clump of identical stem cells that could be used therapeutically to cure diseases as diverse as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and diabetes, among others.

Kass is worried that we won't be able to control these blastocysts once they're created. And he is right; the procedure could be performed by any qualified technician. But this is a free country, which means we don't ban something that isn't inherently bad merely because it might lead to something bad. This concept is at the heart of the Ninth Amendment. For instance, Americans should not run over people with their cars, so we passed a law against it. But even though it is simple to run people over and no one can prevent it, we still let people drive. And we still arrest them when they run people over.

Kass is suggesting that we condemn hundreds of millions of people to misery, suffering and early death in order to prevent something -- human cloning -- entirely unrelated to their circumstances. And yet no creditable scientist is proposing to clone a human. In fact, researchers are furious with the handful of renegade scientists who are trying to clone humans; it taints their own honest efforts.

The truly odd thing about Kass' stance is that nuclear transfer -- the demon that scares him the most -- is the least morally challenging technique for developing stem cells. Nuclear transfer does not involve the creation of new humans; it merely amplifies a patient's own tissue. We've been creating skin cultures for burn patients for years using techniques that are very similar to stem-cell culturing. It takes tortured logic to ban this whole field of medicine simply because somebody might do something bad with it.

Kass makes an interesting and seemingly hypocritical delineation in this debate: He claims to have no problem if medical research uses embryos left over from fertility clinics. But researchers know that stem cells derived from a foreign blastocyst will provoke an immune reaction, as will any foreign DNA. And, unlike nuclear transfer, an actual fertilized blastocyst is killed in the process. If there were any slippery slope to consider, it would probably involve these newly minted humans -- where parental genes have been mixed -- not just some cells cloned from one patient.

While cloned cells are merely an amplification of a patient's own tissue, a fertilized embryo is a potentially novel human. Kass seems to have it backward, wanting to ban experiments with a patient's own tissue, but condoning experiments on fertilized embryos.

Kass warns that if any kind of cloning is allowed, there will be "trafficking in clones." But who would these traffickers be -- and why would they be trading in clones? Are we talking about an army of Saddams? Not likely, since cloning, no matter how sophisticated the cloners, would constitute a pretty inefficient method of conscripting an army. No, these evil "clone traffickers" would mostly be people with fertility problems, desperate to have a child.

It's helpful to keep an image of these particular "criminals" in mind when listening to Kass' arguments. He's disturbed by the idea that human embryos would be created solely for research, but he keeps forgetting that we're talking about a blastocyst, which can't become a human fetus unless it's implanted in a womb. Until that time, the stem cells are basically thin scum in a petri dish. They are your cells, they belong to no one else, they have only your DNA and no one else's. They were never fertilized, and there is no intent to make an embryo.

Kass calls the ban on therapeutic cloning "the opening skirmish of a long battle against eugenics," and that is where the core of his argument seems to lie. Kass knows his history. He's aware of the horrors perpetrated by Nazi scientists and the tragedy of state-sponsored eugenics. And there is no doubt that we must remain ever vigilant about the behavior of scientists and the fruits of their research.

But the threat of eugenics shouldn't provoke such a knee-jerk response. Was it wrong to wipe out smallpox? Most people think the question is insane -- of course not! Yet we wiped out smallpox; we wiped out a gene that was a part of nature. That's tantamount to global eugenics. The same thing could happen to the gene for Huntington's. We could track it down and eliminate it from the gene pool. How could anyone be against that? Why in the world would the government be interested in preserving bad genes? But that is exactly on Kass' sweet spot. He believes we start to lose our humanity when we take control of our own genetic destiny.

According to Kass, it is a deeply fundamental aspect of life to suffer and die. When we try to fix this natural order, we lose our soul, our essential humanity. This is a dressed-up version of the creaky "natural law" argument that John Stuart Mill shot down in the 1800s.

Kass' theories are based on the idea that nature knows best. This is the antithesis of scientific progress, which is always trying to control nature. Those who abide exclusively by natural law are comfortable with diseases because they're a part of nature. Science aims to tame nature and cure diseases. Reasonable people will accept parts of each philosophy, but Kass comes down too firmly on the side of nature, to the detriment of humans.

The American Heart Association has estimated that 128 million Americans have diseases that could be cured or ameliorated by embryonic stem-cell therapy. Kass knows this number. In pushing hard to ban therapeutic cloning, he is apparently willing to sacrifice this group. This is an incredible price to pay for one man's vision of human purity.

By Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson is a science writer in Santa Rosa, California. He is writing a book about stem cells with Dr. Ann Kiessling-Cooper.

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