Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Kass Council Criticized

The critics of the report on cloning from the President’s Council on Bioethics are weighing in now. In a recent piece in the New Republic, Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School finds the arguments of the council headed by Dr. Leon Kass against “therapeutic cloning” insufficient. But Groopman distorts crucial elements of the Kass report and is too dismissive of its strongest arguments.

First, Groopman argues that the zygote does not have a nervous structure so that experimentation upon it does not cause it pain or suffering. But this misses Kass’s point that there are other reasons for not experimenting upon tissue that is in effect a “nascent human being,” a phrase of Kass’s that Groopman mentions but apparently finds distasteful. Groopman does not address the argument that the manipulation of zygotes represents an instrumental view of human life and the undue control of one generation over another; he treats the issue of suffering as the only relevant one.

Then, in an argument based on a complete distortion of the Kass report, Groopman contends that the report necessitates that a zygote have the equivalent moral status of any other human cell which, therefore, must also be off-limits for manipulation. Citing Kass’s contention that the “embryo’s human and individual genetic identity is present from the start,” Groopman argues that this definition covers all tissue and that all tissue has the potentiality of a zygote. Thus, he makes it seem as if Kass’s argument leads to the conclusion that taking a tube of blood for analysis from a human being violates morality in the same way that artificially creating, manipulating, and then destroying a zygote does. According to Groopman’s reading of Kass, “No human cell could be discarded -- ever. No biopsy. No tube of blood. No vial of frozen sperm or egg. Absurd? Of course. But this is where [Kass’s] logic leads.”

The real absurdity, of course, is Groopman’s argument here, for it is Kass who painstakingly distinguishes between the potentiality of a zygote and the absence of potentiality in other cells. It is not Kass but Groopman who, seeking to establish the moral equivalency of zygotes and other cells, wishes to eliminate the quality of potentiality and all the moral significance it confers. Our Harvard doctor either thinks that his readers are willing to believe anything he says and are incapable of reading the Kass report on their own, or he himself is incapable of understanding the report.

Groopman is also dissatisfied with the “slippery slope” argument of the Kass report which suggests that the demand for stem cells today will become one for embryonic organs and tissue tomorrow. Groopman argues that “similar fears have been raised in response to every new scientific advance,” and he is confident that we can establish guidelines. But the “slippery slope” argument should not be dismissed so easily, because the very act of producing, manipulating, and destroying zygotes on a routine basis will likely inure us to the mystery and awe-inspiring potentiality of a zygote and the prohibitions against controlling the next generation so comprehensively. It is much less clear than Groopman’s optimism suggests that we would be able to resist letting the zygote grow further and further if we would be able more successfully to harvest cells for tissue growth from an embryo or even tissue itself from a fetus. True, it seems extremely unlikely now that anyone would want to carve up a fetus for its parts; but it is difficult to say what we would think about it after a few years or decades of experimenting on zygotes with some success. In fact, some initial moderate success (say, being able to produce some tissue, but not a full-blown organ such as a new heart or liver) might give us enough of a taste to push the barriers beyond the zygote stage.

At various points in his piece, Groopman likes to play the cool scientist who is just interested in the facts and cannot speculate on metaphysical matters. But one surely does not need fancy metaphysics to see this common-sense point about how novel habituation or routinization may change behavior and attitudes dramatically. Groopman never takes on the issue of whether one generation controlling another is just; he merely assumes that the alleviation of suffering of existing human beings is a trump against any other claim.

The weakest part of Groopman’s piece is its lack of sustained reflection concerning what motivates scientists, including himself, and the need for that motivation to be governed. When he’s not playing the cool, Harvard research scientist incapable of metaphysical speculation, Groopman leaves no doubt that he comes to the issue of cloning as a physician with the noble intent of healing the sick. His real complaint against the recommendation of the Kass report for a moratorium on therapeutic cloning is not for the obstacle it places in front of scientific activities per se, but for the compromise of hope it inflicts on the suffering who could benefit from stem cell research. Groopman is not a cool proponent of science or reason; he is a passionate champion of the sick. But he never imagines that the noble desire to ease suffering may be abused or that it may arise from some dangerous pride on the part of the healer. Could a selfish, narcissistic desire for glory for healing the suffering lead one to adopt a dangerously utilitarian view of zygotes (which are not able themselves to praise and blame) and genetic manipulation? This understanding, of course, does not condemn outright the desire to heal, for much good has come of this desire; but this understanding recognizes a need for compassion’s governance.

Reflecting on Groopman’s piece, we cannot help but be reminded of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, despite his defense of compassion elsewhere, in his famous, prize-winning First Discourse argued that the defenders of science in his day were no different than religious fanatics of earlier ages. They didn’t defend reason or science simply for its own sake but for the utility that it could provide; theirs was a political project, a public relations campaign if ever there was one. Even if they made the utilitarian arguments prudentially, as a novel means of protecting a more detached, unencumbered science, Rousseau argued that the strategy was flawed, for such a strategy could never keep science unencumbered for long. Consequently, the philosophes of the Enlightenment compromised science; they made the means of escape from fanaticism a fanaticism itself. Rousseau is the modern philosopher who affords us the most comprehensive view of these controversies.


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