Ethics & Public Policy Center

New Genetics, Old Quandaries

Published in The Weekly Standard on April 22, 2002



IN JANUARY, the President’s Council on Bioethics began its first meeting with a reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark,” a parable of a scientist’s obsessive effort to remove a “crimson stain” from his wife’s cheek. It is about the mad quest for perfection–the revolt against “sin, sorrow, decay, and death”–that ends with the destruction of its momentarily perfected subject.

Fortunately, most Americans–and most scientists–are not so mad. But the animating myth of both modern democratic politics and modern technology is that misfortune is not inevitable, and that health and happiness are possible for everyone. We do not worship progress. We don’t believe it is our “destiny.” But we think and act as if progress is always possible, and the future will always be better than the past.

President Bush expressed this spirit at the end of his speech last week on the dangers of human cloning: “I’m an incurable optimist about the future of our country. I know we can achieve great things. We can make the world more peaceful, we can become a more compassionate nation, we can push the limits of medical science.” Even as he called upon scientists to respect moral limits that many of them wish to deny, the president celebrated the coming “age of genetic medicine, a time when many of the most feared illnesses” might be “overcome.” Even as he documented what he deemed to be morally grotesque biological experiments already underway both at home and abroad, he affirmed the American capacity to “pursue medical research with a clear sense of moral purpose.”

One has to admire America’s “incurable optimism.” Unlike Europe, which seems to have arrived (or believes it has arrived) at the end of history, America still believes there is work to do, and therefore responsibilities to meet.

But there is a danger, too, in living too much for the future. C.S. Lewis explained this in the guise of “Uncle Screwtape,” a senior devil giving advice on how to tempt human beings away from “the Enemy” (i.e., the good). As he put it: “We want a man hagridden by the Future–haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth–ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the Present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other.”

The belief that the future will be better than the past–indeed, that it cannot be otherwise–is at the very heart of the American biotechnology project. As biotech spokesman Carl Feldbaum declared at last year’s industry conference: “Our revolution is about more than science. Make no mistake, it touches the whole earth, potentially every individual, and we have to keep faith with global society. Only then will we be doing our jobs and delivering on the promise of our distinct revolution which so far, we can all be very, very proud of.”

But is the genetic revolution good for us? Is it a “revolution” at all? Is it happening “now”? And is this revolution utopian or bourgeois? Does it expand the American commitment to equality by making those with Jefferson’s “saddles on their backs” (diseases, disabilities, mediocrity) more equal? Or does the coming age of genetic choice and control threaten to unravel our commitment to equality by enshrining the principle that only some lives are fit to live?

THE FIRST QUESTION is whether there is in fact a genetic revolution and whether the key moment is now. After all, many of the arguments and dilemmas in the current biotech debate are very old: the clash of religion and science; the humanitarian desire to relieve man’s estate, and the moral hazard of seeking such relief by any means possible; the promise of technology to improve the human condition, and the danger that our technological hubris will lead to the abolition, self-destruction, or degradation of man.

Moreover, the debates themselves–over human cloning in particular and genetic manipulation in general–are also not new. Leon Kass, the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, debated the ethics of human cloning in the Washington Post in 1967. James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, testified before Congress about human cloning in 1971, declaring, “If we do not think about it now, the possibility of our having a free choice will, one day, suddenly be gone.” And the Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey addressed cloning in 1970 in “Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control.” “To soar so high above an eminently human parenthood,” he wrote, “is inevitably to fall far below–into a vast technological alienation of man.”

Finally, we are already, in important ways, a “eugenic” society. We already tolerate or embrace surgical enhancements of our physical appearance, for no other reason than individual desire, and with no limit except our ability to pay. We already advertise, on billboards and in television commercials, drugs like Zoloft and Paxil, which promise to make anxious people “happy” and imperfect lives more perfect. Some of us already pick and choose embryos based on their genetic characteristics or sex, taking what we like and discarding what we don’t.

And so, our problem is not simply or predominantly a lack of ethical dialogue or forethought about where the new genetics might take us. Our dilemma is that biological and genetic science proceeds apace–one advance at a time–untroubled by the futuristic ethics (or moral backlash) it often inspires, or by the many commissions that have met to discuss what biotechnology means for society. Descartes, among others, saw what it means centuries ago: “that we could be free of an infinitude of maladies both of body and mind, and even also possibly of the infirmities of age, if we had sufficient knowledge of their causes, and of all the remedies with which nature has provided us.” Whether such “freedom” is truly possible, and whether it is compatible with the technological power that is its precondition, is what we may now be finding out.

With this in mind, I want to suggest three reasons why this moment is both distinct and important for confronting the new genetics, and why the new genetics is different, in degree if not in kind, from medical progress heretofore. I also want to suggest that American optimism about our capacity to shape the future for our benefit–to make life better than it is–may need to refocus itself on governing the very technology that claims to do just that. This requires, paradoxically, an optimism about our capacity to accept the imperfections of life, lest we endanger the human goods and moral responsibilities that such realism makes possible; and lest, like Hawthorne’s scientist, we destroy the beauty of the one we love, so to speak, in a misguided effort to make her better.

THE FIRST REASON this moment is important is simply that a wave of biological and genetic advances has occurred over the last few years. In 1997, we cloned a mammal; in 1998, we isolated human embryonic stem cells; in 2000, we completed the “first draft” of the entire human genome; and in 2001, we cloned human embryos (though scientists in China may have done this even earlier). At the same time, research proceeds in novel areas like artificial wombs, man-animal hybrids, and the screening of embryos according to their genetic traits. Much of what was predicted in the 1970s seems to be coming to pass, if not always as quickly or dramatically as many promised and feared.

Moreover, the new genetics, while it appeals to the established goals of modern biomedical science–freedom from “the maladies both of body and mind”–seems different in important ways. For one thing, it allows one generation to choose the natural characteristics of the next. And the changes we make to ourselves–for example, by altering the chemical workings of the brain–may be so perfectly implemented that the self-medicating “patients” lose the capacity to know what they have become. The modifications themselves will predetermine our judgment about whether such altera
tions are good–by making us people who cannot imagine life without them.

There seems to be widespread repugnance at the idea of parents designing children to the specifications of Olympic athletes or master pianists, or elites designing subordinates who aspire to nothing more than serving their maker’s needs. But what about the more apparently benign uses of genetic control–such as boosting the intelligence of a child who is below average, or ensuring that a new child is a genetic match for an existing child in need of an organ transplant, or screening out children with a greater likelihood of developing dreaded diseases?

The answer to this question–Why not design our offspring “for their benefit”?–has to do with the kind of people we would have to become to perform such experiments in the first place, and the kind of world that such a genetic disposition seems to lead to. Indeed, the willingness to make the next generation something “better”–to test one’s hypotheses on one’s offspring–is also a willingness to gamble with their well-being. The supposedly beneficent reasons for genetically improving future generations and the moral disregard it would require are in direct conflict.

THE SECOND REASON this moment is important and distinct is that the use of biotechnology by illiberal regimes–like China–is coming into full view. Chinese eugenics and Chinese “medicine”–including mandatory abortions, state regulation of child-rearing, and the harvesting of organs from the living–are by now well known. But in our own optimism about biological and genetic progress–and the belief that the new technology is, in essence, not dangerous but life-affirming–we have thought little about how our advances will be used by nations with less respect for human life than we now have, or whether the similarity between our science and theirs might suggest something is amiss in the ethics of our own research. Two examples will suffice:

-In recent months, American researchers announced advances in both artificial wombs and in the promise of cells taken from cow fetuses (not embryos, but fetuses) for curing terrible diseases. Also, Chinese scientists announced that they have successfully cloned embryos using rabbit eggs and human DNA. And so, does anyone doubt that, if and when it becomes possible, Chinese scientists will harvest cloned human fetuses for research and experiments?

-Last month, Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, delivered a lecture on advances in the human genome, stating his belief that within a few years we’ll be able to isolate and test for numerous genetic disorders. Around the same time, there was a series of reports of parents using pre-implantation genetic screening (i.e., tests of embryos in the laboratory) and abortion to select babies with or without particular traits. Does anyone doubt that the Chinese, if and when it becomes possible, will use our knowledge of the genome and our techniques of genetic screening to produce children made-to-specification, a practice we still claim to find repugnant?

And so, while we might pursue such technologies for what seem to us good reasons, our capacity to criticize biology’s evil uses–our capacity to make the case for human rights against those regimes that ignore them–may one day be compromised if our technology makes us more like them, rather than them more like us.

FINALLY, the political and moral culture of the nation has changed since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the last great debate over biogenetic technology took place. It has changed in part because of the triumph of the “pro-choice” doctrine in abortion, entailing as it does the belief that the moral status of the unborn is determined by the mother’s subjective will. This leaves us in the odd position of trying to oppose the “modification” or “improvement” of nascent human life in a society that allows its destruction for any reason at all. This dilemma has become apparent on an issue like sex-selection of embryos, which many feminists find troubling, and yet difficult to oppose given their defense of abortion.

These issues have been taken up most forcefully in the current debate over cloning, which reveals a series of political divisions. For one thing, the same cloning researchers whom roughly half the Senate sees as medical heroes, the other half sees as renegades whose experiments undermine our respect for human life and should be deterred with criminal penalties. This is the culture war at its sharpest.

The cloning debate also exposes deep conflicts within both liberalism and conservatism. There is the conflict between libertarians and social conservatives on the right, and between greens and quality-of-life liberals on the left. Greens and social conservatives believe the new biotechnology can be used to corrupt nature and human nature, and that government has a role in regulating to prevent its misuse. Libertarians and quality-of-life liberals believe the new biotechnology serves both a more perfect freedom (from suffering, rules, and physical restraints) and a more perfect equality (for the sick, disabled, and dissatisfied, who no longer have to endure the sting of their “unequal” condition).

But at a deeper level, the biotech debate will reveal the perhaps shaky foundations of late-bourgeois life itself, which, for all its rejection of utopianism on a grand scale, may have opened the door to utopianism on a small one. Indeed, the moral defense of capitalism once rested firmly on a belief in the limited wisdom and virtue of human beings, a belief that man is unequipped to make heaven on earth. Now bio-capitalists seem to be promising just that.

And where liberalism once rested its moral argument on an unflinching commitment to the principle that “all men are created equal,” our leading liberals now defend (or seem willing to tolerate) picking and choosing future human beings according to their superior traits. In doing so, they follow the lead of John Rawls, who suggested this new liberalism three decades ago. It is, he wrote,

“in the interest of each to have greater natural assets. This enables him to pursue a preferred plan of life. In the original position, then, the parties want to insure for their descendants the best genetic endowment (assuming their own to be fixed). The pursuit of reasonable policies in this regard is something that earlier generations owe to later ones, this being a question that arises between generations. Thus over time a society is to take steps at least to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects.”

It would, of course, be silly to deny the value of health, well-being, and “greater natural assets.” Health is a blessing, not to be trivialized by the healthy. And excellence is a gift, perhaps even more than it is an achievement. But it is at least worth noting that the more biologically improved we become, the less willing we may be to accept imperfection–or the imperfect. And the more we come to believe that life can be fixed, mastered, and ordered to our liking, the less prepared we may be for the disorder and disaster inherent in our mortal condition.

If this is correct, then liberal “compassion,” which seeks to solve the problems of man by technologically overcoming (or weeding out) his “birthmarks,” may be well on its way to deconstructing itself. And bourgeois realism about the limited aims of human striving–health, self-improvement, commerce–may be conducive to a failure of realism about what man is: both the evils he is capable of, and the vulnerability and need for courage that ultimately define him.

And yet, the fact that we are now engaged in a great debate about these questions–about the meaning of human procreation and healing, of experiments using nascent human life, of personal makeovers and custom-made descendants, of self-government in the realm of biotechnology–is encouraging. Nothing has been finally decided. We will continue to make arguments and cast vote
s–such as whether to ban human cloning–and as long as we do, there is every reason to remain, if not incurably optimistic, at least moderately so.

Source Notes
Copyright: 2002 The Weekly Standard

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