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Bioethics Panel's Topic 1: Perfection

January 18, 2002|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It's not the way your typical presidential commission begins deliberating on a weighty policy question--spending an hour or so on a 156-year-old short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

But then, if Leon R. Kass has his way, President Bush's newly formed Council on Bioethics won't be your typical federal advisory panel.

In Washington, such bodies are often used to cool political hot potatoes. They listen to all sides, deliberate for a year and file a lengthy report that can be safely forgotten.

Some wondered if the President's Council on Bioethics, created last summer when Bush decided to let some embryonic stem cell research go forward, was in this tradition. The stem cell decision troubled many conservatives, and conservatives appear to be well represented on the 18-member panel.

Yet Kass, a University of Chicago and Harvard-trained physician, biochemist and bioethicist, made it clear at the council's first meeting Thursday that he believes the times are ripe to break the mold.

"It's has been a long time since the climate and mood of the country was this hospitable to serious moral reflection," Kass said, declaring that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had led to "a palpable increase in America's moral seriousness."

Kass, the panel chairman, introduced the Hawthorne story both to indicate his intention to give the commission a serious role and to focus attention on what he sees as potential dangers if science is pursued without regard to moral considerations.

The story, called "The Birthmark," deals with a young scientist who becomes so determined to remove a small birthmark from the cheek of his otherwise-perfect wife that he plunges into an untested course of treatment that kills her.

Kass said during a break in the meeting that the story "allows us to reflect deeply on the human aspiration to eliminate all defects, the aspiration for perfection. . . . When you have the power to intervene in the human body and mind not just to cure disease, which everyone wants to do, but to alter human nature, those are the fundamental questions of human life."

The need to explore the moral implications of human cloning, stem cell research and other scientific breakthroughs is especially urgent, Kass suggested to the panel, because they are intertwined with laudable goals of curing disease, relieving suffering and prolonging life.

Along with such benefits, the new technologies "are also available for uses that could slide us down the dehumanizing path toward a brave new world," he said.

Several panel members said cloning and other techniques could lead to the future "manufacturing" of babies whose genetic makeup had been determined by government or individuals.

Princeton University law professor Robert P. George said the Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of inalienable rights endowed by a creator, "points to the limits of our moral authority over human life."

William F. May, a former professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University, warned that "marketplace initiatives are much more important" than before in driving medical and scientific research.

And Francis Fukayama, a political economist at Johns Hopkins University, urged the council to work toward creation of a federal regulatory agency to deal with bioethics.

But several members of the panel, including Daniel W. Foster, a longtime researcher on diabetes and endocrinology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, urged the group not to demonize science on the basis of depictions like Hawthorne's.

In remarks at the daily White House briefing, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer reflected the fine line the administration is trying to draw on the new science: showing attentiveness to those concerned about where it may lead, without seeming to oppose medical advances that could help millions of patients. He said the president "thinks that as the breakthroughs take place in science and in medicine which have the potential to cure diseases, it is vital for the nation to have a full understanding and a rich reflection and a discussion of the ethical implications of some of the breakthroughs."

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