Campus & Community

Debating a brave new world

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Cloning, genetic engineering are subjects of Harvard Administrators’ Forum

Harvard College Professor Michael Sandel speaks about cloning, genetic engineering, and ethics at the Harvard Administrators’ Forum at the Barker Center. (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

As biotechnology increasingly lets us change ourselves and our children, bioethics asks whether we should.

Harvard administrators Tuesday answered with a resounding “maybe.”

About 100 administrators got a taste of student life Tuesday (Nov. 4) in a discussion on cloning, genetic engineering, and sex selection of children led by Harvard College Professor Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government.

The lunchtime talk was part of the Harvard Administrators’ Forum, an ongoing lecture series designed for Harvard’s administrative and professional staff. This year’s series, titled “Harvard Stars,” features high-profile faculty from across the University.

“This is an effort for us to share, if only for a few moments, the experience students get year ’round,” said Fran Feldman, a member of the Harvard Administrators’ Forum Steering Committee.

Feldman said Sandel was a good choice to kick off the series because his course, Moral Reasoning 22, nicknamed “Justice” by students, is among the most popular at Harvard, with about 900 undergraduates taking it. Among his other positions, Sandel sits on the President’s Council on Bioethics, which was created in reaction to the debate over the use of stem cells in therapeutic settings.

“This could not be a better beginning for our series,” Feldman said.

In his talk, Sandel provided a framework for the discussion and then guided audience members to consider underlying moral issues, highlighting the shades of gray that sometimes separate firmly held positions.

Sandel started by talking about stem cell research, which scientists hope can lead to cures for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and spinal cord injuries but which opponents criticize because early embryos are killed when the cells are harvested.

The issue has so divided the United States that the nation currently has no laws banning cloning, Sandel said, either for therapeutic reasons or for human reproduction, though there is widespread agreement that cloning for reproductive purposes ought to be banned.

The U.S. House and Senate disagree on a final resolution of the matter, Sandel said, and even the committee that Sandel sits on, the President’s Council on Bioethics, is split on the issue.

From cloning, Sandel moved on to what he termed “enhancements,” or therapies originally intended to treat a medical condition that have a dual use for healthy people. He used as an example the prescribing of human growth hormone for children with growth problems versus its use for children naturally short because their parents are short.

Members of the audience generally opposed performance-enhancing treatments for athletes. But one audience member brought even that into perspective by asking whether an extreme case of enhancement – a gene to live longer, or one that allows one to eat a lot without gaining weight – would be rejected by most Americans.

Others said that the human race needs to take advantage of whatever it can to survive, while still others said biotechnological advantages bestowed on children are similar to the kinds of advantages people give their kids by sending them to good schools, piano lessons, and premier universities.

Sandel wrapped up the talk with a discussion of sex selection of children. Sex selection is practiced through abortion and infanticide in some cultures and is possible in the United States today through advanced technologies, including a machine that sorts X- and Y-chromosome-bearing sperm – by weight – to give people a baby of a specific sex through in vitro fertilization. The machinery was originally developed for the cattle industry, Sandel said.

While some people may view sex selection as distasteful, one audience member asked whether allowing preconception selection might be preferable to infanticide and abortion.

The common thread through all these choices is control, Sandel pointed out. Being able to control things in life is generally considered to be good, but too much control in these new areas may not be.

Overall, Sandel said he hopes that decisions on such issues can be made free of cultural prejudices, such as our consumer society’s quest for beauty or, as in some Asian societies, the valuing of male babies over females. In the end, he said, the debate over biotechnology really isn’t one about technology, but about the underlying human values.

“It’s partly about biology, it’s partly about technology, but ultimately, it’s about human nature and the morals we bring to bear,” Sandel said.