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PERSPECTIVE ON RESEARCH : A Brave New World Is Hatched : An NIH plan would create human beings for study and experimentation, and then dispose of them.

November 27, 1994|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington

At the beginning of Aldous Huxley's classic novel, as at the entrance to the brave new world it depicts, there is the "Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre." In a "squat gray building," 300 technicians bend over their microscopes, managing the process of human reproduction. The technicians inspect human eggs, then immerse them in a "warm bouillon containing free-swimming spermatozoa." The fertilized eggs--human embryos--are then incubated until they are ripe for bottling and development.

The suburban campus of the National Institutes of Health, just outside Washington, is a handsome park; there are no ugly, squat, gray buildings to mar the sylvan landscape. But what the NIH proposes to undertake is nothing less than the creation of a real-life American analogue to Huxley's Central London Hatchery. For, later this week, the advisory committee to the director of NIH will consider and almost certainly adopt the recommendation of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel that the federal government sponsor and fund the laboratory creation of human embryos as research materials for experimentation.

This research, the panel alleges, will have all sorts of benefits: reversing infertility, enabling us to make more perfect babies, even contributing to the fight against cancer. Other scientists disagree that the potential payoff is that considerable. But even if the scientific benefits were as great as the NIH panel claims, the burning question would remain: Is it ever morally acceptable to create human lives for research experimentation that will, inevitably, destroy them?

Most people instinctively recoil in shock and disgust, even horror, from such a proposal. That reaction should be encouraged, not deplored. It bespeaks not scientific illiteracy but moral common sense. High school English students find Huxley's fictional future frightening because, in it, men and women have been thoroughly instrumentalized, made into means for someone else's ends. Yet that is precisely what the NIH proposes to sponsor, using taxpayer funds to pay the freight.

scientists will be creating, manipulating and then destroying "developing human life" that deserves "serious moral consideration."

But evidently not too much consideration, for this human life, the panel argues, lacks "personhood." Personhood, according to panel member Ronald Green of Dartmouth, is not a set of "qualities existing out there" but something that "we" bestow on a human creature. Whether someone is too old, too young, too burdensome or too useless to be afforded the protections given to persons is something that "we" decide, on the basis of enlightened self-interest. "Personhood" is not an inherent quality of human beings; "personhood," on Green's analysis, is a "social construct."

We have been down this grim road before. The 20th Century is replete with examples of what happens when one group (or caste or race or party) declares itself to be the vanguard to whose superior purposes others must bend, even to the point of their extermination.

The great slaughters of our era--of Jews, Gypsies, Polish intellectuals, Ukrainian kulaks, Armenians, bourgeois Chinese, Hutus, Tutsis--all took place when the humanity of indisputably human beings was denied by powerful others, who were acting, so they thought, on sound scientific or philosophical or eugenic or theological or political principle.

There are some things that should never be done by anyone, under any circumstances, for any reason, in aid of any possible benefit. One would have thought that, in the wake of Nazi quackery, the exploitation of human beings as research material would be understood as one of those things. But now the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel proposes to go a step further by deliberately creating human lives whose only prospect is to serve as disposable research material.

In so doing, the panel endorses a direct violation of the Nuremberg Code, which, inspired by Dr. Josef Mengele, unambiguously declared that "no experiment should be conducted where there is . . . reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur."

The use of human beings for experiments that will harm them and to which they have not consented should be prohibited by law. So should the technological production of innocent human beings as research materials. Congress must act; the NIH, alas, seems incapable of recognizing either scientific hubris or crude utilitarianism masquerading as moral reason.

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