Toward a More Natural Science
As the technology available to the biomedical community has increased in power, new ethical challenges have arisen for society in general and for the medical community in particular. Scientists can, or will soon be able to, ensure the production of genetically perfect children, significantly expand natural life spans, produce new forms of life, and overcome infertility. At first glance, these all seem to be positive advances. They have the potential, however, of altering the fundamental structure of human life. More particularly, and perhaps more immediately, the new powers available to the medical community may force a reexamination of the self-conception and definition of the physician.
Leon Kass is a physician and biochemist by training and a philosopher and educator by vocation. He is an extremely articulate spokesperson for those who fear the consequences for the human race if current trends in biomedical science and technology are not reversed. In thirteen essays written over a dozen years (only two have not been published before), he examines three specific themes: the ethical questions raised by the new power of biomedical technology in the area of human reproduction and genetics, the proper goals of medical practice, and the true nature of nature. He seeks a more natural biology, one “true to life as found and lived” and not divorced from ordinary human experience.
Research on human reproduction has led to the development of several controversial techniques and results. Test-tube babies, cloning, genetic screening, and genetic engineering raise serious ethical questions. Cloning and other potential developments will generate additional problems. Kass analyzes and answers some of these questions. He argues persuasively, although many might not grant his first premises or agree with his conclusions. Underlying Kass’s ethical discussions is a fundamental and controversial scientific belief—human life begins at fertilization. As a corollary, he holds that fetuses, whether normal or abnormal, as living things have a right to life. Abnormality is not a sufficient reason, at least ethically, to condone abortion.
If the reader accepts these cornerstones of Kass’s philosophy, then his arguments concerning infertility, genetic screening, and abortion will be compelling. He does not believe that having a baby is an absolute right or that infertility is a disease to be cured at all costs. Society must accept some infertility. Although this will mean personal unhappiness for individuals, infertility is preferable to the experimentation on and death of human embryos which is a necessary by-product of efforts to solve infertility. Moreover, as Kass warns, although particular biomedical technologies were invented as a response to infertility, there is no reason to believe that the use of that technology will be limited to solving such problems. There are various possible eugenic applications. Again, the result would be the death of embryos and fetuses for questionable purposes.
Kass is not ignorant of the fact that in American society debates over some of these ethical issues are not limited to the philosophy class or the laboratory but have spilled into the streets, Congress, and the Supreme Court. One of his explicit objectives is to raise these ethical questions in the context of a “liberal democracy.” He warns that advances in biomedical science and technology will not respect the boundaries on nature placed by judges.
His precepts for and criticism of the medical profession are equally thought-provoking...
(The entire section is 1459 words.)