A look at bioethics chief's ethics

SUN JOURNAL

Excerpts: Dr. Leon R. Kass, chosen by President Bush to lead a Council on Bioethics, has been prolific in his writing on the moral dimensions of science.

November 26, 2001

The White House is expected this fall to name members of a Council on Bioethics, created in connection with President Bush's decision to allow federal funding for limited research on human embryonic stem cells. It remains unclear what the council's work will be, how many members it will have or how they will be chosen among physicians, ethicists, scientists and historians.

What is clear is that the chairman of the new council, Dr. Leon R. Kass, 62, has been prolific in his writing on the moral dimensions of medicine, science and family life - and holds strong opinions. Appointed by Bush, Kass has not held so public a position before. Kass holds degrees in medicine and biochemistry and teaches at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought. Here are excerpts from his published work, selected by Arthur Hirsch of The Sun staff:

On the sale of human organs:

"Selling our bodies, we come perilously close to selling out our souls. There is even a danger in contemplating such a prospect - for if we come to think about ourselves like pork bellies, pork bellies we will become.

"We have, with some reluctance, overcome our repugnance at the exploitative manipulation of one human body to serve the life and health of another. We have managed to justify our present arrangements not only on grounds of utility or freedom but also and especially on the basis of generosity, in which the generous deed of the giver is inseparable from the organ given. To allow the commodification of these exchanges is to forget altogether the impropriety overcome in allowing donation and transplantation in the first place. And it is to turn generosity into trade, gratitude into compensation. It is to treat the most delicate of human affairs as if everything is reducible to its price."

-The Public Interest, 1992

On the morality of genetic technology:

"The road we are traveling leads all the way to the world of designer babies - reached not by dictatorial fiat but by the march of benevolent humanitarianism, and cheered on by an ambivalent citizenry that also dreads becoming simply the last of man's man-made things.

"Make no mistake: the price to be paid for producing optimum or even only genetically sound babies will be the transfer of procreation from the home to the laboratory. Increasing control over the product can only be purchased by the increasing depersonalization of the entire process and its coincident transformation into manufacture. Such an arrangement will be profoundly dehumanizing, no matter how genetically good or healthy the resultant children. And let us not forget the powerful economic interests that will surely operate in this area; with their advent, the commodification of nascent human life will be unstoppable.

"Does this mean that I am therefore in favor of ignorance, suffering, and death? Of killing the goose of genetic technology even before she lays her golden eggs? Surely not. But unless we mobilize the courage to look foursquare at the full human meaning of our new enterprise in biogenetic technology and engineering, we are doomed to become its creatures if not its slaves. Important though it is to set a moral boundary here, devise a regulation there, hoping to decrease the damage cause by this or that little rivulet, it is even more important to be sober about the true nature and meaning of the flood itself.

"That our exuberant new biologists and their technological minions might be persuaded of this is, to say the least, highly unlikely. But it is not too late for the rest of us to become aware of the dangers - not just to privacy or insurability, but to our very humanity. So aware, we might be better able to defend the increasingly beleaguered vestiges and principles of our human dignity, even as we continue to reap the considerable benefits that genetic technology will inevitably provide."

- Commentary, September 1999

On human cloning:

"Whether or not we know it, the severing of procreation from sex, love and intimacy is inherently dehumanizing, no matter how good the product.

"If the scientists want to be taken seriously on ethical grounds, they must at the very least agree that embryonic research may proceed if and only if it is preceded by an absolute and effective ban on all attempts to implant into a uterus a cloned human embryo (cloned from an adult) to produce a living child. Absolutely no permission for the former without the latter."

- The New Republic, June 1997

On courtship:

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