Religion, Research and Stem Cells

A Conversation with Leon Kass Originally published at San Francisco Chronicle

When President Bush selected bioethicist and author Leon R. Kass to head the President’s Council on Bioethics, many were outraged. Kass, a critic of human cloning, was accused of being a Luddite who would use his position to stack the council deck against “scientific progress.”

But that is not how Kass viewed his mandate. He envisioned that the council would facilitate a true national conversation on the most crucial bioethical issues of the day, a debate in which all perspectives are welcome. The council’s first report, “Human Cloning and Human Dignity,” mirrored the country’s deep divisions about the morality of human cloning. While the 17 voting members unanimously agreed that cloning to produce children should be outlawed, the council split on whether the law ought to permit human cloning for biomedical research. Ten supported a four-year moratorium on all human cloning while seven urged that research proceed.

I met with Kass in the council’s offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Agree or disagree with him, there is no denying his eloquence.

Smith: Proponents of cloning and embryonic stem-cell research contend that limiting their freedom will lead to a “brain drain,” where the best and brightest minds will go elsewhere to do their research and the United States will fall behind scientifically. What do you think?

Kass: That’s a scare tactic. Scientists, like everybody else, are free to leave the country for whatever reasons. One would like to think that the people who live in this country and enjoy its benefits will not turn their backs on the support and prestige they receive here simply because there are some relatively few — and not all that severe — limits on what society says they can and cannot do.

Most countries, in fact, are not allowing cloning for any purpose. Norway just established a ban on what they call therapeutic cloning, joining Italy and France; South Korea endorsed the use of embryos for research but said absolutely no to cloned embryos for research. Germany has a ban on all (destructive) embryo research; it has the highest rate of growth in biotechnology in Europe. (Since this interview, Australia has outlawed all human cloning, while permitting embryonic stem-cell research.)

Michigan has the most severe laws on cloning and embryo research; it has the highest rate of growth in biotechnology in this country. The best scientists are those who are perfectly happy to live under those strictures. The few rogues and rascals who won’t live here, we are well rid of.

Smith: There’s a concept called “scientism” — that rather than being objective fact-finders and seekers of knowledge, that in some regards, modern science and the research industry have developed an ideology of sorts. Do you believe there’s such a thing as an ideology of science that has moved past the scientific method into a belief system?

Kass: First, there is a tendency among those with a scientific world view to believe that science has a monopoly on the truth about the way things are. But science has great power as a means of gaining knowledge only because it has left out many of the important questions. Its view of the world is value- neutral. It deliberately doesn’t ask questions about the what and the why of things. It only asks how they work. This is at best a partial knowledge of the world masquerading as the whole. So the belief that the only things that are real are matter, energy and motion, that is a philosophical kind of imperialism, which we have been suffering under increasingly for centuries.

Second, science has had a tacit agreement with society from the time of Descartes: You give us freedom, you provide us with financial and moral support and we will give you untold benefits that will reverse the curse laid upon Adam and Eve. And in exchange for these benefits to health, safety and comfort, science first escaped prosecution and then acquired an honored place in society. That contract was always a moral contract.

But it was never understood that there were to be no limits on what scientists could do. No scientist of the first rank and no philosopher of science has ever said that science was somehow trump and had unlimited power in the political community. The trouble is that very often scientists think and act as if they should not yield any authority to the ignoramuses in politics or to superstitious people informed by religion.

Smith: How has this come into play in the cloning and embryonic stem-cell debates?

Kass: It is rare to see a scientist who thinks that nascent human life has any dignity worth respecting whatsoever. One sees here something of the dehumanizing effect of experimenting on something you become so familiar with you no longer stand in any awe. If you want to see what is going to happen to the rest of us if we go down this road, you should look at what has happened to scientists themselves. They no longer look upon early embryonic human life as something before which we should stand in awe because of what it can develop into; they really treat it as chopped liver. To that extent, they find it unbelievable that anybody would want to protect nascent human life and they simply attribute it to religious superstitions. But you don’t have to be religious or believe that the embryo is a full human person to recoil from wanting to see it turned into a natural resource.

Smith: I’ve been shocked at how politicized science seems to have become. Researchers actually tailor their scientific reports to affect public policy debates.

Kass: That has certainly been the case. The mobilization of scientists over the last year, first during the (embryonic) stem-cell debate and then the cloning debate has been remarkable. In fairness, however, I think that the House vote last year (to outlaw all human cloning) was a wake-up call to the scientific community. It was the first time the argument, “This will save lives,” was not victorious. The scientific establishment was stunned. Many saw it as a real threat to their freedom of inquiry, as a revival of the wars of religion against science.

Smith: What about conflict of interest? Some people who claim to be dispassionate actually have a financial stake in some of these issues.

Kass: One of the major changes since the 1970s is that the line between commercial and academic biomedical science has been completely erased. It has affected the free communication of results, which are now industrial secrets. Oldtime scientists and purists are worried about what it is doing to science. It skews how arguments are made in the public sphere. Another major change is that we have an extremely vocal and very well-financed biotech industry which is much more radical than Big Pharma. Big Pharma doesn’t want to go near the things that are controversial. But the new kids on the block, in order to get venture capital, are willing to ride roughshod over many moral values for the sake of hitting a home run.

Smith: What about transgenic animals, the idea of “pharming,” putting some human DNA into animals and producing substances from these animals that we can extract as medicines: Does that present a moral problem for you?

Kass: Whether that is strictly a moral question and whether it is something that should be stopped, I am not sure. I worry at least as much about what these things do to our own attitude toward life and the world and ourselves — the corruption of the doers as opposed to just the harm to the one done in.

Smith: With transgenic manipulation, we are talking about putting human DNA into animals, animal DNA into people, animal-to-animal DNA. At some point we will have to decide when a modified life should be deemed human.

Kass: This is terribly important. All of the boundaries are up for grabs. All of the boundaries that have defined us as human beings, boundaries between a human being and an animal and between a human being and a super human being or a god. The boundaries of life, the boundaries of death. The normal human relations that are founded upon the ties born of sexual reproduction, as a result of which every child is the fusion of two lines going back to time immemorial. We may be able to do new things, but it will no longer be clear who is the “we” doing them — whether enhancing athletes’ bodies through steroids, changing who you are with euphoriants, moving the maximum life expectancy out so that one no longer lives with the vision of one’s finitude as a guide to how one chooses to spend one’s days, or blurring that ultimate line of what is a human being and what is an animal. These questions are the questions of the 21st century and nothing is more important.

Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of “Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America.” Leon Kass will speak at the Commonwealth Club on Friday.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.