Shortly after announcing his decision to limit federally funded research to existing stem-cell lines, President Bush appointed Leon Kass, a physician and University of Chicago professor, to head the President's Council on Bioethics. An avowed opponent of cloning, Kass has assembled a panel that critics say leans too heavily toward banning the procedure. But nothing about the bioethics debate is open-and-shut, and the group's first meetings in mid-February showed that there's plenty left to discuss. Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell corresponded by email with Dr. Kass.

The press has already defined cloning as a matter of a technological innovation, which in turn is equated with progress by this society. Do you think the president's council can gain a voice in the debate?

Technological innovation is indeed important to economic growth and the enhancement of human possibilities. But many people recognize that technology often comes with unintended and undesirable side effects. And when it comes to bear on the workings of the human body and mind, they are rightly concerned. I believe the majority of the public is aware that there are large ethical issues here and is interested in having them explored.

How are bioethics different from other issues in a democracy? Can't popular will be the moral arbiter?

What the people believe is always important. However, in a pluralistic society we can expect major disagreements on some important moral questions, especially when the contest is between competing moral goods. And democratic representatives may see fit to set certain limits on private choice, as they have done in outlawing the buying and selling of babies, or organs, for instance, or the use of certain mind-altering drugs.

So do you think government has to impose regulations?

More important than any one regulation may be devising new regulatory institutions not only to speak about ethical questions, but to monitor developments so we can realize the benefits of biotechnology without suffering its more unwelcome prospects.

Other questions of human procreation are for the most part considered off-limits to government regulation. Why do you think cloning falls outside the realm of private conscience?
>br>It is perfectly appropriate for the community to act in order to protect the well-being of the next generation. Failure to act means tacitly endorsing the principle that parents and scientists should be free to shape the genetic constitutions of the next generation. Should something this important be left simply to private conscience? A society that tolerates cloning, like a society that tolerates voluntary servitude or voluntary incest practiced on a small scale, is no longer the same society. We often intervene to protect the powerless against those who would impose their will upon them. Cloning would do just that.

Are you saying allowing cloning would be the same as allowing voluntary servitude, by which I take you to mean slavery, or voluntary incest?

No, I said permitting cloning might have a social meaning comparable to permitting voluntary incest and voluntary servitude. These are practices that society has chosen to outlaw, rather than leave to private conscience. If we now decided that father-(grown)daughter incest would be permitted, if it were entered into by mutual consent, not many people would practice it. Nevertheless, the society that tolerated it would no longer be the same society. We don't allow the freedom to sell babies or organs, to enslave themselves voluntarily to a master, no matter how benevolent, or to practice polygamy, even voluntarily. A society in which these activities were permitted, even on a small scale, would be a different society.

By the way, there may be similarity between intra-familial cloning and incest. Both confound the meaning of mother and father, daughter and son. A woman who gave birth to the clone of her husband--does not the situation look a little like the household of Oedipus and Jocasta?

Could you say more about how you think cloning challenges the meaning of human procreation?

In sexual reproduction, two come together to make a third, the co-mingling of their separate flesh now made one. In the situation that most clearly embodies the meaning of human reproduction, the child is the fruit of the love of man and woman, uniting the partners in a way that the mere concourse of their bodies never can succeed in doing. In turn, the child finds his or her source in this mysterious union, and his place in the world at the junction of two lines of descent.

In cloning, in contrast, reproduction is asexual--the cloned child is the product not of two but of one. He or she descends from one progenitor, not from two. Moreover, he is not begotten but rather made, the product of human will and artfulness. To be sure, two nurturing (i.e., non-genetic) parents could subsequently love a cloned child--though the fact that the child is related mostly to one of them, and is twin of only one of them, might also interfere with healthy relations within the home--between "parent" and twin-descendant, and between the "parents."