You say it's important to limit genetic research because "human nature is fundamental to our notions of justice, morality and the good life." How does genetic science threaten our human nature?
We're all connected by certain things we hold in common. Some of the most important are our emotional range, how we react to each other. That's what really connects us morally. To the extent that we begin playing with those essential-not secondary, but essential--human characteristics, we lose touch not just with each other, but all the previous generations of human beings who have existed. We become different kinds of creatures.
Some ethicists, including Princeton's Lee Silver, ask what's wrong with that? Human nature has been self-selected by society in some sense.
I've always wanted to ask Lee Silver, "Would you regard the elimination of a genetic propensity for homosexuality an improvement in a human being, in the manner we select for pest resistance in a corn plant? If he could answer that question simply, I'd say, okay, let's go ahead and do it.
Don't you think our desire for control over genetics is itself human nature?
If that were all that were in our natures, that would be one thing. But we also have emotions about community and solidarity with one another, which require some limits on individual choice. Therefore, simply to say you're going to preserve this one aspect of human nature that wants to maximize our ability to change ourselves privileges one aspect of human nature over another.
In the drug world we've gotten past what I regard as legitimate medicine in certain respects with cosmetic pharmacology, overprescribing drugs, like Prozac or Ritalin. In the future, genetic screening that is used for other than therapeutic purposes would be questionable. If you are choosing sex, or you're identifying genetic markers for things that are not clearly diseases, I think that's a problem.
In your book talk about Prozac and Ritalin being used not as medicine but to create socially acceptable behavior. Will reproductive techniques become the Prozac and Ritalin of the future?
It depends discriminating between therapeutic uses of biomedicine and things more in the nature of human enhancements. The big question becomes which is which. The classic case is Ritalin, where you have this socially constructed disease-ADHD-and this very squishy diagnosis about when it exists. People can legitimately question what is an enhancement or an entertainment use of Ritalin.
That's going to come back in genomics. Say we come up dwith something that replaces defective tissue in an 80-year-old, who lives another 10 years, when this person would have died at any other time in human history. It's pretty hard to say that that's not an enhancement use of medicine. There are gray areas, but as a practical matter, it may not be as difficult to make this kind of discrimination as it sounds in theory.
What was your reaction to the report from the Bioethics Committee?
Well, I had a role in drafting it. I support the ban on reproductive cloning and the moratorium on research cloning. I don't think your going to lose that much momentum on the research side because you'll still be doing a lot of the basic research on stem cells on animals, plus there's research going on outside the United States.
Meanwhile, we'll have time to put the regulatory framework in place. In four years we'll know pretty well whether there are not ways of getting the same results through adult stem cells. Some people saw the moratorium as a compromise. In my view it was the right policy. It reflects where the research stands and where the debate in the country stands.
Well the initial characterizations were just ridiculous. The media expected Bush to appoint a bunch of pro-life conservatives and he appointed Leon Kass, and Kass appointed a very balanced council. So I think it's a matter of wrong expectations.