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Use of embryos passes the moral test

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BOSTON — As someone who scraped through the college science requirement with a physics-for-poets course, I should be pleased that the President's Council on Bioethics opened its first session on a literary note.

The required reading for the panel assembled to grapple with 21st-century problems was a 19th-century short story. "The Birthmark," written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1843, is a tale of a young scientist who emerged from his grimy lab, "washed the stain of acids from his fingers and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife."

No sooner were they wed than he became obsessed with her one small flaw, a tiny hand-shaped birthmark on her pale cheek. Eventually, the scientist created a potion to remove the birthmark. Alas, it also removed his wife.

There are several ways to interpret this story. (Is there a marriage counselor in the room?) But Leon Kass, the assigning professor and chair of the president's panel, meant it as a cautionary moral tale about scientific hubris. The tale, he said, "allows us to reflect deeply on the human aspiration to eliminate all defects, the aspiration for perfection."

The aspiration for perfection? Did this critic stack the literary and public policy deck?

The first bioethics debate before the council and the country is human cloning. The House of Representatives has already passed a total ban. Soon the issue will come before the Senate in two forms. One bill backs the total ban supported by the president. The other would ban cloning to make genetic replicas of people but allow cloning to treat disease. This is the distinction supported by the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, no responsible scientist or public policymaker is in favor of reproductive cloning. There's no compelling reason that justifies the risks or the results. But therapeutic cloning — creating very early human embryos in the quest to cure diseases — is another story. A story that doesn't fit Hawthorne's plot or Kass' lit-crit.

Just imagine what parents of a child born with a devastating disease such as Fanconi anemia would make of having it compared to this "birthmark." Cystic fibrosis, for that matter, is not a little blemish on a perfect cheek. And curing Parkinson's disease is not the hubristic pursuit of perfection.

There are indeed some serious moral arguments about what is a "defect." But is anyone ready to argue that Alzheimer's disease should be protected from the mad hand of a scientist?

As Dartmouth bioethicist Ron Green says, "The people who are trying to develop the new tools of genetic science and cell research are not seeking perfection. They are, like scientists and physicians for the past 200 years, seeking to reduce the burden of human suffering."

The plot thickens because this promising line of research entails early stage embryos. Every scientific inquiry and bioethical conversation about cloning runs into the propeller of religion and pro-life politics.

The fundamental question is not about the moral status of the scientist but the moral status of the embryo. Is an embryo an "unborn child"? Does this cluster of cells have equal or greater moral weight than a suffering adult? Says Green, "I believe that the cloning issue is being used as a pretext to impose a radical right-to-life agenda on scientific research."

Last summer, President Bush signed on to a political compromise that allowed government funding of research for some existing stem cells. But he opposes cloning on the grounds that life begins at conception. And on Tuesday, the 29th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the president again declared that "unborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law." But what are the implications of that for, say, in vitro fertilization? And what will happen now that Britain allows therapeutic cloning? Can we ban importing cures based on cloning?

Philip Kitcher, who argues forcefully for democratic checks on science in "Science, Truth, and Democracy," nevertheless says, "When religion enters the public sphere, then all of a sudden claims held very firmly go unchallenged and we reach a stalemate."

In the bioethics debate that goes on inside our own heads, most Americans sense that the embryo is neither a child nor a mere piece of tissue. We should be wary watchdogs over scientists or manufacturers who would deal with embryos as commodities. But using these clusters of cells to cure suffering of existing humans passes the moral threshold test.

As for aspiring to perfection, if Hawthorne's scientist had simply cured his wife's birthmark, I imagine he would have found fault with her cooking. In my own required reading, I keep a jaundiced eye on progress, but somehow I'm glad medicine didn't stop "aspiring" in 1843.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com .