Washington--Bioethics and literary classics aren't usually mentioned in the same breath. But, to Leon Kass, chairman of President Bush's newly appointed Council on Bioethics, the "great books" are an essential part of the public discourse on bioethics. Literature, from Aldous Huxley's dystopia "Brave New World" to Natalie Babbitt's children's book "Tuck Everlasting," will help the nation grapple with bioethics issues like cloning, he says.

Kass, 63, has been engaged in bioethics for more than 30 years. A professor at the University of Chicago on a two-year leave and a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, he is considered something of a Renaissance man. And both his scholarship and professorial skills will be called upon as he leads the bioethics council -- established to advise Bush on contentious issues like cloning and stem cell research.

The council is an advisory, not a regulatory, body. Kass said its goal is "not to come to a consensus," but to provide Bush with the different views of council members on cloning and other issues.

Legislation on cloning is now before Congress. A bill sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., would ban both cloning for human reproduction and cloning for biomedical research, known as "therapeutic" cloning. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., would ban only reproductive cloning.

This week, Stop Human Cloning, an advocacy group, began airing TV ads urging viewers to ask their senators to support Brownback's bill. Kass holds B.S. and M.D. degrees from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard. In 1969 he was a founding fellow of the nation's first bioethics center, the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y.

He is the author of several books, including, with James Q. Wilson, "The Ethics of Human Cloning" (American Enterprise Institute Press), and has just completed a study of the biblical book of Genesis.

Kass grew up in Chicago. His parents were Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European Jews. "It wasn't a religious household," he said. "But there was reverence -- if not for God, for human life. My parents were socialists. I learned later that their socialism was in the moral spirit of the Jewish prophets -- not Marxism."

Kass adds, ruefully, "I didn't realize how much moral passion there is in the Jewish tradition. I'd have been a rabbi if I'd lived during the time of the czars."

His interest in bioethics developed "indirectly," Kass said, when he was a graduate student and he and his wife, Amy, returned to Harvard after spending the summer of 1965 doing civil rights work in Mississippi. "I was puzzled," he said. "Why did I find more decency in the black farmers there than in the privileged graduate students? If the teaching of the Enlightenment was correct -- if you removed poverty and superstition, you would give people the opportunity to be moral human beings. But the graduate students around me were self-promoting."

At the end of the 1960s, many discoveries were made in biology and genetics, said Daniel Callahan, a colleague of Kass' at the Hastings Center. "People spoke of the biological revolution. Biology was to the '60s what physics was to atom-building in the '40s."

Kass said that during this period he realized that "the advances made in science and technology to relieve suffering could dehumanize us." Advances in reproductive biology such as in vitro fertilization, he said, can do much good. Yet, he argues, these biotechnologies may also cause us "to lose our awe and mystery at the coming into being of a new life."

Emphasizing that he does not speak for the bioethics council, Kass said he opposes both cloning for research and cloning for human reproduction. Proponents of cloning assert that cells cloned from embryos may be able to provide knowledge of or treatment for diseases such as Parkinson's disease or diabetes.

To this Kass responds, "(with cloning) you can create a beautiful world. Where there's no disease, suffering, grief or despair. At a cost of stunted humanity. Where these problems are solved. But where human beings lack art, religion, self-government."

Cloning is only one of many upcoming bioethics issue, according to Kass. He said society will soon be dealing with such thorny matters as financial incentives for organ transplants, advances in neuro-science that will change the behavior of the human brain, and germ line modification that could change the genes of future generations. These technologies, developed to do good, Kass adds, have risks. "These risks go beyond safety, efficacy and cost," he said. "The power behind these technologies changes the meaning of what it is to be human. They're seductive. They don't come at once. They come piecemeal. You get used to them without thinking."

There are two types of bioethicists, Callahan said. "Most in this country are concerned with public policy -- with regulation. Such as, say, the rights of dying patients. A smaller number are concerned with broad questions: What does it mean to be human? What is the goal of medicine?"

Kass, he said, is among those who ask the "ultimate" questions. "Kass is a terrific teacher," Callahan added. "He wants to hear both sides of the argument. Though on issues like cloning, Kass has a position. He can work with Washington."

Kass is highly regarded by other bioethicists, even those who are his critics. Ronald M. Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College, speaks for many when he says of Kass: "I disagree with many of his conclusions. But I think Leon Kass has been extremely intelligent and thoughtful. He plays an important Cassandra role. We've seen terrible abuses in the quest for biological perfection (for instance, eugenics) and the over-medicalization of our world. Kass helps us to move forward with our eyes wide open."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad