As in Australia and other Western nations, the United States has been involved in a lengthy and divisive debate concerning the new reproductive technologies. More specifically, it has been debating the moral, social and scientific merits of human cloning and stem cell research.
This book is the result of a special inquiry ordered by US President Bush to examine these contentious issues. Late in 2001 he announced the formation of a bioethics council to weigh into the many related issues involved in the cloning debate. Chaired by bioethicist Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, a panel of experts was quickly convened, and after 6 months of research and reflection, this final report was presented to the President in July 2002.
This 350-page book presents the findings of the Council. The Council was comprised of 17 experts in science, medicine, public policy and ethics. Some were secular, some religious. Some were fully against any form of human cloning – even for research purposes – while others were much more open to therapeutic research involving embryos, whether deliberately created for that purpose, or “surplus” from assisted reproduction programs. The majority however seem quite concerned about all types of human cloning. Indeed, all 17 members opposed human reproductive cloning, while 10 of the 17 were generally opposed to therapeutic cloning.
The report begins with an overview of the debate, including scientific, historical and ethical components. Terminology is also clearly defined. Then the pros and cons of the ethics of reproductive cloning are examined in detailed. Similarly, the ethics of therapeutic cloning, both for and against, are closely discussed.
The book concludes with public policy options and recommendations. Finally, thirteen Council members contribute personal statements on the proceedings. These include William Hurlbut, Charles Krauthammer, Gilbert Meilaender and William May. In these statements the various authors are allowed to express personal preferences, disagreements, or endorsements of the Council report. Many of these alone are worth the price of the book.
But as I mentioned, the great majority of Council members seem to have a strong ethical basis on which they make their pronouncements. Thus the report, while allowing various sides to be heard, often gives room for extensive moral reasoning and reflection (notably absent in much of the similar Australian Senate committee report of last year).
For example, in the discussion on cloning for research, the Council acknowledges that we should not ignore the needs of the suffering, but even this must be kept in balance: “the relief of suffering, though a great good, is not the greatest good. As highly as we value health and longer life, we know that life itself loses its value if we care only for how long we live, and not also for how we live.”
On the issue of the moral status of the human embryo, again, differing points of view are expressed. But it does deserve special respect, and should not be treated as a means to another’s end. It is more than a clump of cells, and it clearly is the means by which all of us began. The report recommends that all embryo research be subject to a new and thorough review and be part of a larger regulatory scheme.
If readers are familiar with the works of Leon Kass, they will see his fingerprints throughout this volume. Much of the level-headed common sense and moral clarity of his writings shine through here. For example, one will find warnings about not putting too much faith in science and scientific research, a theme often found in the writings of Kass. As the report says in one place, we must not unduly shackle science, but neither must we worship at its altar either. Yes, scientists often act from good motives, but “if history teaches anything, it is the danger of assuming that, because our motives are praise-worthy and our hope is to heal, our actions cannot possibly violate or diminish human well-being. Indeed, we may be least likely to see the dangers when we are most confident of the goodness of our cause.”
To put restraints on scientific inquiry is both sensible and morally necessary. This is especially important as we further move into the murky waters of cloning and embryo research. Interestingly, as I write this, wheel-chair bound actor Christopher Reeve has had an opinion piece published in the Melbourne Age. The staunch advocate of destructive embryonic stem cell research goes so far as to say that “We should err on the side of unfettered scientific inquiry”. He needs to read this report.
The report continues, “Scientists already accept important moral boundaries in research on human subjects, and they do not regard such boundaries as unwarranted restrictions on the freedom of scientific research”. Science cannot be given a blank cheque. It must always set limits. We have seen how unfettered science and medicine can go astray just a half century ago. We need to learn our lessons here.
In many other ways this report reflects wise deliberations, careful moral considerations, and prudent policy directions. How much Kass has to do with all of this is unclear, but it does reflect some careful moral thinking on the subject.
Having said that however, we must beware of the book’s limitations. Because this report is a collection of viewpoints – an assemblage of differing options and proposals – it cannot come out with clear-cut and definite conclusions. Thus it may well disappoint some.
But the overall direction and tone of the report is one of balance, prudence and caution. It realises the limitations of science and medicine, and recognises the importance of a comprehensive ethical underpinning of any discussion on the issues involved. It thus makes for an important contribution to the overall debate.