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Debate Opens Questions on Future of Biotechnology and Medicine - 2004-01-12

The President’s Council on Bioethics has published a report on possible moral and political consequences of recent developments in life sciences and medicine, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. The authors warn that the ability to alter and control life processes may have serious negative consequences for humanity.

In the bleak science-fiction classic Brave New World, published in 1932 by British author Aldous Huxley, people take a pill called “soma,” which makes them content and compliant. Children are born in “hatcheries” producing carefully engineered embryos.

Replace “soma” with one of the popular mood-enhancing drugs like Prozac and think about the recent advances in genetic engineering and cloning, and it becomes clear that Brave New World is really around the corner.

Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics established to investigate possible social and ethical consequences of our ability to control the very processes of life, says the age of biotechnology has begun filled with hope and expectation.

“Advances in genetics, drug discovery, and regenerative medicine promise cures from dreaded diseases and relief from terrible suffering,” Dr. Kass says. “Advances in neuroscience and psycho-pharmacology promise better treatments for the mentally ill. Techniques of assisted reproduction have already allowed more than a million infertile couples to have their own children.”

But doctor Kass believes the future uses of biotechnology will go beyond therapy. In his view life sciences will inevitably become tools for human pursuit of happiness and perfection: longer lives, stronger bodies, happier souls, superior performance, better children. The President’s Council on Bioethics warns, however, that altering and controlling human minds and bodies may have a negative impact on human freedom, dignity, feelings, and moral integrity.

Dr. Kass puts the conclusions of the council in the form of questions about the ultimate balance of gains and losses. He says it is quite natural to want better children. “But do we want better children if it means turning procreation into manufacture,” he asks, “or it means altering their brains to gain them an edge over their peers?”

We want to perform better in all the activities of our life. “But do we want to accomplish this by becoming mere creatures of our chemists,” he asks, “or by turning ourselves into bionic tools designed to achieve in inhuman ways?” Similarly, says Dr. Kass, longevity is a natural human desire. But do we want longer lives “at the cost of living carelessly or shallowly with diminished aspirations of living well, or by becoming people so obsessed with our own longevity that we care less and less about the next generations?” he says.

Even more questionable, says Dr. Kass, are attempts to control human minds through the application of mood enhancing drugs and stimulants. The key to happiness, he says, is not brain chemistry but the rich web of human relations, “the real loves, attachments, and the achievements that are essential for human flourishing.” The findings of the President’s Council on Bioethics published in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness were the subject of a panel discussion organized by the American Enterprise Institute. Professor Diana Schaub of Loyola College in Maryland spoke about the human pursuit of longevity and immortality. She quoted an episode from the popular science-fiction show Star Trek, which retells the story of Methuselah, the biblical patriarch endowed with near-immortality.

In Star Trek, Methuselah finally leaves the Earth and retires to a distant planet, where he grows lonely, arrogant, and insensitive to human feelings. Is it possible asks professor Schaub, that love, compassion, and social bonds are inseparable from the knowledge of the inevitable end of every human life? “My years watching Star Trek,” she says, “have left me receptive to the view that mortality is, if not precisely a good thing, than at least a necessary foundation for other very good things, and there is something misguided about the attempt to overcome mortality.”

Another participant in the discussion, Professor Peter Lawler from Berry College in Georgia, believes that any attempts to achieve mental bliss through technological or pharmacological means will prove futile and counterproductive.

Technology, he says, will never replace the sense of true continuity, permanence, love and friendship. In his view the social pressure to be, or at least appear “happy,” only deepens our loneliness and anxiety typical of our high-tech, competitive, individualistic culture. “Every modern or technological attempt to make us more at home in this world has had the main effect of making us more homeless,” he says. “This one will be no different.”

Professor Lawler believes that beneath the surface of our drug-induced good feelings we will remain anxious and angry, while our pursuit of happiness would become fanatical and more futile than ever. Peter Lawler points to the paradoxical attitude toward safety and health in the modern technological society. As technology makes our lives objectively safer and healthier, we become more and more obsessed with our safety and health.

Members of the President’s Council on Bioethics point out that unlike Huxley’s Brave New World, there is little danger that the American government will try to use biotechnology to impose its own uniform vision of a perfect society. They assume that in open free-market countries, the use of biological enhancements will be individual and voluntary. Yet they warn that market-oriented, consumerist culture can create its own powerful incentives to join the race for better, biologically improved lives. That is why the report says free societies should try to reflect on what gives life the most meaning and be able to give up immediate gratification of every human desire.

But Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist at The New Republic weekly, thinks that despite those concerns, future control over the processes of life may prove inevitable. “Things that seem strange or even grotesque about bioengineering to our generation,” he says, “may seem, from the perspective of future generations, merely to be adaptations.” Future generations, says Gregg Easterbrook, may consider it natural that “first there was undirected evolution and then there was directed evolution under our control. They may wonder why some people were fighting it at the beginning of the 21st century.” That makes it all the more important to evidence the moral doubts we have today.

This is what the report of the Presidential Council on Bioethics attempts to do. The authors of Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness avoid moral pronouncements, or policy recommendations and call for no specific legal actions. They say they are concerned only with what they call “opening questions” on the future of humanity in the new area of bioethics. Or as Dr. Leon Kass put it, “articulating that there is a problem here.”