Ethics & Public Policy Center

Dr. West and Mr. Bin Laden

Published in The Weekly Standard on December 17, 2001



In testimony before the Senate last July, Dr. Michael West, president of Advanced Cell Technology and lead scientist on the team that recently cloned the first human embryos, quoted Scripture:

As the Apostle Paul said: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (I Cor. 13:11) In the same way, it is absolutely a matter of life and death that policymakers in the United States carefully study the facts of human embryology and stem cells. A child’s understanding of human reproduction simply will not suffice and such ignorance could lead to disastrous consequences.

True enough. But a childish understanding of ethics also will not suffice, and childish ignorance by scientists of their moral obligations can also lead to disastrous consequences.

Before September 11, the issues of human cloning and embryonic stem cells had come to center stage in American politics. On July 31, the House had passed a ban on all human cloning. And after months of deliberation on what to do about federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, President Bush delivered his first special televised address to the nation on August 9. “We have arrived at that brave new world that seemed so distant in 1932, when Aldous Huxley wrote about human beings created in test tubes,” he said. Revolutionary advances in biology and genetics have brought us to “the leading edge of a series of moral hazards.” How we confront these issues, he added, “may well define our age.”

Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11. Fears of a brave new world dropped from the forefront of the national mind. It was now death and destruction we feared, not utopian biology. It was bioterrorism we feared, not morally compromising advances in biomedical research. It was human mortality we feared, not a post-human future of would-be immortals.

But the announcement by Dr. West’s company that it has cloned human embryos reminds us that the forward march of biological “progress” does not halt during wartime; and that even as America rightly defends liberal democracy against terrorism, it cannot ignore the moral problems created by modern technological society.

Perhaps it is significant that the genetic challenge and the challenge of terrorism seem to have arrived together. For both require us to confront fundamental questions about life and death, good and evil, civilization and barbarism. The new genetics leads us to expect an indefinite extension of life, to believe that medical science may one day smooth the jagged edges of our mortality. Terrorism confronts us with the permanent fragility of life, and with the destruction that modern technology, in the hands of evildoers, can unleash upon its creators.

Aldous Huxley understood the connection. In his novel, the brave new world comes into being in large measure as a remedy for human fear–a way of “perfecting” existence so that men and women can lead long, healthy, and pleasure-filled lives. It is an escape from the burdens of history, suffering, and war. As Mustapha Mond explains in “Brave New World,” “What’s the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? . . . People were ready to have their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life.”

For the last decade, Americans have had a generally quiet life–happy, healthy, upwardly mobile, unburdened by history. The holiday ended when the planes hit the first World Trade Center tower. What confronts us now is a band of nihilistic terrorists who despise mere health, comfort, and life. Our enemies worship death–not just our death, but their own apocalyptic, civilization-destroying suicide. Osama bin Laden put it bluntly: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.” The challenge to America–a nation that “loves life,” and rightfully so–is that confronting such death-seeking terrorism requires a willingness to fight and perhaps to die. It requires courage, and even heroism.

Hatred of life and glorification of death lead in obvious ways to evil. But life understood as an absolute devotion to health and material well-being may invite us to tolerate, even celebrate, morally questionable pursuits (like cloning human embryos for research or harvesting organs) and morally debilitating expectations (like a life without challenges, tragedy, or suffering).

Thus, Dr. West informs us, “for the sake of medicine, we need to set our fears aside.” But are all fears about what man will do with his new genetic powers unjustified? Dr. West doesn’t think “the abuse of this technology, its potential abuses, should stop us from doing what we believe is the right thing in medicine.” But aren’t the likely abuses of a technology as important as its speculative benefits? Dr. West’s mission, he says, is “to end suffering and disease.” But does pursuing such utopian dreams make us willing to tolerate, accept, and ultimately normalize evil means?

As the ethicist Paul Ramsey put it, “any person, or any society or age, expecting ultimate success where ultimate success is not to be reached, is peculiarly apt to devise extreme and morally illegitimate means for getting there.” And peculiarly apt, one might add, to redefine the project so that it seems morally blameless, as Sen. Arlen Specter and other zealous advocates for unlimited research have tried to do, by saying that cloned embryos are not really cloned embryos.

In short, what America now faces are two grave threats to a dignified human future–one which is obvious, and one which comes so wrapped up with real and apparent goods that it is hard to detect. The first is the dehumanization of the terrorists, who have so little regard for life (including their own) that they make killing their only purpose and modern technology their weapon. The second is the dehumanization of the eugenicists, who seek a brave new world in which technology makes human (or post-human) life perfectly healthy, pleasant, autonomous, and secure–even if some moral boundaries must be breached along the way. Both threats are upon us now.

Source Notes
Copyright: 2001 The Weekly Standard

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