TCS Daily

Playing Bruce Almighty

By James Pinkerton - June 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the first of three parts on science and bioethics. First the present, then the past - the way past - and finally, the future.

The new hit movie "Bruce Almighty" has millions of Americans thinking about - or at least laughing about - playing God.

But let's leave Jim Carrey and his record-breaking movie out of the equation for the moment. In the real world, concerns about playing God are rising as new biotechnology makes more cures possible. And so here's the real question: who is playing God? Those who seek to save and improve lives through miraculous and controversial techniques? Or those who wish to prevent the use of such techniques?

The issue continues to torque up as new discoveries ramp up. The newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun revealed that a team of researchers in Japan has found a gene in embryonic stem cells that seems to switch cancer "on"; the hope is if such a switch can be found, it can be switched "off." The periodical Cell observed that scientists in Scotland and Japan have found a "master gene" in embryonic stem cells; this gene, dubbed "nanog," might yield the secret of "pluripotency" - eternal youth, for lack of a more explanatory term.

Just on Tuesday, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation have identified a technique for prompting embryonic stem cells in mice to grow into brain cells. The idea would be to apply the same technique to humans, thus alleviating such brain disorders as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Most Americans aren't following these specific stories too closely, but the cover of Newsweek, which asks, "Should a Fetus Have Rights?" puts these and other hot-button concerns into one package. The magazine notes, for example, the increasing trend toward the "humanization" of the fetus, thanks to ultrasound, enabling prospective parents and others to see their unborn child in close detail. Such images not only increase the "quease" factor in abortion, but also undergird the trend toward treating the fetus as a child for legal purposes. The most spectacular example of this trend is the tragedy of Laci Peterson, the eight-months-pregnant woman who was allegedly murdered by her husband. But prosecutors have chosen to charge Scott Peterson, in addition, with the murder of the fetus, who has been named Conor. "Conor was a person," insists Laci's mother. If that assertion is deemed to be the truth - that an unborn baby is the same as a baby - then abortion rights will be jeopardized, as every fetus could be given not only a name, but also legal status as a human.

And not only will abortion rights be at risk, but so will embryonic research. And that will mobilize a counter-trend. The same Newsweek story cites a Connecticut couple, Pieter and Monica Coenraads, parents of a daughter suffering from Rett Syndrome; Monica Coenraads was so opposed to abortion that she refused amniocentesis. But now that she has a daughter suffering from a debilitating neurological disease, she sees the fetal issue somewhat differently. "My conscience tells me that for me personally having an abortion would not be the right thing to do. That same conscience tells me that stem-cell research is needed," says Monica. Indeed, Mrs. Coenraads is now an activist on behalf of the embryo-based research aimed at helping her daughter and 15,000 other children with the same malady.

No doubt a huge clash is coming, as two groups with heartfelt views - pro- and anti-stem cell research - square off in the public square. Each side will be armed with its special pictures. The anti-stem cellers will have "baby pictures," featuring not only nearly-born fetuses, but also 8-cell blastocysts; the pro-stem cellers will have their own images of sick children and others, of all ages, with severe ailments. And of course, the debate will be international, as well as domestic; already much of the cutting-edge research has migrated offshore, as the Scottish and Japanese datelines in the above-mentioned news accounts suggest.

In the meantime, Congress slogs along, trying to come up with legislation that satisfies the need for reverence for life and the need for research to save lives. So far, no success.

But because the issue is destined to get hotter, it's worth pausing over some of the major players seeking to shape the debate. One such is Leon Kass, a professor in the Commission on Social Thought at the University of Chicago who chairs the President's Council on Bioethics. As Kass says, "Among the most urgent of the Council's intellectual tasks is the need to provide an adequate moral and ethical lens through which to view particular developments in their proper scope and depth."

OK, fair enough. Let's look for a moment through Kass's moral and ethical lens. The obvious place to start is a book Kass published last year, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. In it, he reviews issues of bioethics from organ sales to assisted suicide to cloning. And while his conclusions cleave toward those of the man who appointed him to the post, George W. Bush, Kass can turn a phrase, as when he laments, "What looks like compassionate humanitarianism is, in the end, crushing dehumanization." In other words, technology may save lives, but it costs souls.

Kass realizes that he faces a daunting task of bringing 'round his critics; he prefaces his tome with this lament: "I fear that nothing I can say will prevent many readers of this book from regarding it as a Luddite tract, and me as hostile to science and technology, or as a natural pessimist, or someone simply fearful of the future." Doth he protest too much? Or is he merely unconvincing in his denial that he is future-phobic?

Anti-modernism had already become apparent in an earlier book of Kass's, co-authored with his wife, Amy A. Kass, in 2000. That work, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, is an anthology of wisdom about human interaction featuring the work of thinkers and authors from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Sullivan Ballou, the Union officer who wrote a duty-before-love letter to his wife just before he was killed at the battle of Bull Run in 1861; the Ballou letter was immortalized in Ken Burns' 1990 epic for PBS, "The Civil War."

It's hard for anyone with a sense of civilization to argue with all the wisdom that Kass & Kass assembled, but it's also hard to argue that the clock can be reversed as far as the Kasses wish to winch it back. In Wing to Wing they offer a "partial" list of changes that "hamper" courtship and marriage. Get ready, because here it comes: "the sexual revolution," "effective female contraception," "the ideology of feminism and the changing education and occupational status of women," and the "destigmatization of bastardy, divorce, infidelity and abortion."

Let's go over some of the items in that last clause. "Bastardy" is in the dictionary, even if the word is so antiquated that my Microsoft Word program regards it as a spelling error. "Bastardy" is a great word for condemnation, but is it a word for persuasion? As for divorce, it is obviously antithetical to marriage, but what is to be done about the reality of bad marriages, including such doleful phenomena as spousal and child abuse?

But the Kasses aren't through yet. To their list of hampering factors, they add, "the general erosion of shame and awe regarding sexual matters," "widespread morally neutral sex education in schools," "great increases in geographic mobility," "a popular culture that celebrates youth and independence," and finally, "an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and asks us of no devotion to family, God, or country."

Whew. What an inventory. Three years ago, the Kasses produced a litany of social ills that seems overwhelming in its determinative weight. And yet today, the world looks different; hundreds of thousands of young people, all products of this un-virtuous culture, performed honorably - on 9-11, in Afghanistan, in Iraq.

But if the War on Terror has reminded us that the wellsprings of true virtue are deeper than most cultural conservatives imagined, Kass, writing by himself in his 2002 bioethics book, would not let go of his earlier critique. Indeed, he seems so in love with his silky phrasings that he spins himself further into conservative crank-dom: "The project for the mastery of nature, even as it provides limitless powers, leaves the 'master' lost at sea. Lacking knowledge of ends and goals, lacking standards of good and bad, right and wrong, we know not who we are nor where we are going." Now just a second here. Do you, dear reader, feel that this describes you? Your family? Your town?

Indeed, Kass continues in the same Weltschmerz-y way, "We travel fast and freely, progressively achieving our own estrangement - from our communities, from our nature, from our very selves." At this point, Kass's critique is becoming familiar - familiar, that is, to Leftists, even more than Old Rightists. "Estrangement": isn't that another word for "alienation," one of the classic buzzphrases of Marxists and their neo-descendants? Do you, poor thing of a reader, feel alienated? From your job? Your car? Your computer? Which of those would you give up to feel united once again with the collective and the community? And when Kass tells us that we are estranged from our "nature," and our "selves," what follower of Rousseau, what Greening of America New Ager, would dispute him? Is this what 21st century conservatism amounts to - a merger with the Left?

And here's where Kassism does, in fact, veer into Luddism. He praises "modern science" as "one of the great monuments to the human intellect" but is unwilling to say much of anything nice about future science. Indeed, he rolls out his rhetorical skills to mock the ambitions of those who would seek to improve the human condition. Setting up a straw man for a later burning, he writes, "According to many a prophet in the temple of science, biology has no permanent limitations. Instead, it faces an endless frontier -eagerly, gladly, confidently." That's Kass's style: wrap everything in a swaddle of syllables, all of them thoughtful and euphonious, all of them serving to set up his ultimate point: that progress is ironic, even illusory.

But is progress an illusion? Try telling that to parents whose children will - or will not - be cured of here-and-now diseases. They might take comfort in Kass's lyrical treatment of the human condition, but they are more likely to find solace in the specific treatment of their kid's medical condition. But here Kass offers no comfort: on page 169 of the book he concludes that the only way to deal with "therapeutic cloning" is the same way as he would deal with "reproductive cloning" - a total ban.

But Kass is operating on a far larger stage. As his earlier book attests, his interests go far beyond science, to what he sees as the good life - a life within sharp limits.

How sharp? He sees limits imposed not by modern science, or even modern law, but rather, by ancient religion. In his bioethics book he sometimes takes on the world-weary aspect of the Book of Ecclesiastes - everything new, seemingly, is vanity and vainglory. And so, for example, while a few "doctrinaire libertarians" might be so thick that they will "not consider that freedom can take us anywhere but upward," he offers us a different path.

What path is that? A path to the past, all the way back to the Old Testament. Is Kass really about citing the God of the Patriarchs as a guide for contemporary medical regulation? Telling people that they must suffer in medical ignorance and neglect while neo-prophets slay the golden calves of scientific modernity?

You think I'm kidding when I assert that the national bioethics chief wishes to go back 3,000 years? Tune in next week and behold.

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