A review of Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity. By Leon Kass.

Encounter Books, 2002.

The rapid growth in biotechnology has seen a corresponding growth in bioethics. Unfortunately, however, many bio-ethicists have become handmaidens to Big Biotech. The twin towers of technology and money have led many to abandon genuine independent ethical reflection. There have been too few  voices to assess the latest trends in biotechnology in a wise, discerning and prudent manner.

One person who has done so is biologist and philosopher Leon Kass of the University of Chicago. He has spent a lifetime thinking about, and writing on, the new reproductive technologies and the challenges they present. And he has done so always with a view to the implications for human dignity and freedom. This volume, which includes articles which have appeared elsewhere, contains of wealth of information and ethical reflection on the new technologies.

All the major issues are covered here: cloning and stem cell research, IVF and assisted reproductive technologies, the new genetics, euthanasia and end of life decisions, and other recent developments in biotechnology.

Also carefully discussed are the hard questions: What is the moral status of the human embryo? Should there be limits to where we are heading in biology and technology? Are there areas of mystery in life that science should simply leave alone? Should autonomy, and the modern concept of human rights, trump other social and community concerns? What is the nature of medicine and what are its goals? These and other important ethical concerns are all given wise and careful consideration.

Kass examines the relationship between liberal democracies and the new technologies, for example, offering incisive and cautious reflection. He notes how democracies help create a climate which makes possible the growth of science and technology. But he also warns that without a moral vision of how that technology should proceed, there is the danger of commercial interests and utopian schemes derailing the science into undemocratic ends.

Indeed, since the time of the Enlightenment, an overly rationalist and utopian dream of the perfectibility of man has been pursued, often with disastrous consequences. Only by continually affirming the mystery and sacredness of life, and the dignity and wonder of man, can we prevent such coercive utopianism.

However, as Kass so clearly points out, the real threat is not coercive utopianism, but well-intentioned utopianism. That is, the real dangers come from those who speak of compassion, the relief of suffering and the battle for immortality. Says Kass, “the benevolent uses of humanitarian technologies often have serious unintended and undesired consequences.” The promises of the relief of all suffering and the extension of life may sound pleasing to the ears, but can in fact bring bitterness to the soul.

Lost in the discussions of overcoming all problems and eradicating all unhealthiness, is the concept of the human person, of human dignity. To what end should we strive for immortality? What benefit will it be if we can live longer but not better lives? It is living well, not just living longer, that should preoccupy our minds and dreams. Yet the modern quest for perfection rarely addresses those more important concerns. Indeed, the modern rationalistic and secular march of science and technology often deliberately eschews any moral or religious considerations.

The whole problem of designer babies is another outcome of the new technologies. We now have the power to determine in advance how a baby can and should  live. We not only have the power to change an individual’s life through the new genetics, but generations to come. And with the new genetic medicine comes the power to decide who will live and who will die.

As we redefine a human being in terms of his or her genes, we run the risk of “justifying death solely for genetic sins”. Genetic reductionism makes it easier, not harder, to allow experts and scientists to make the difficult choices of who is allowed to live. Eugenics, even if done with the best of intentions, is still eugenics. And the new eugenics is not so easily discerned, when it comes hidden behind a white lab coat or in an attractive fertility clinic.

The pressure of science and Big Biotech to simply do whatever can be done, without asking whether it should be done, will only continue. Especially when sold in the guise of relieving suffering, or offering more lifestyle choices. We have, as Kass says, the “biomedical equivalent of a spiraling arms race” where research and technology seem to know no limits. The consequences are frightening.

“Homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, drug-induced contentedness, debasement of taste, souls without loves and longings – these are the inevitable results of making the essence of human nature the last project for technical mastery.”

Kass concludes by acknowledging that he is not a Luddite, that there has been much good to come from the new technologies. But there is much to fear as well, especially if our scientific advances are not coupled with moral and spiritual growth. A perfect body, with a hole in the soul, may not be progress, but an unspeakable regress.

Which way the future unfolds is an open question at this point. The future in many ways is up to us. Do we allow a future with dignity and freedom, or do we passively accept the dehumanisation and depersonalisation that comes with unbridled scientific advance? The important warnings offered here need to be read and heeded, if we are to advance on the right course.

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