Campus & Community

Ethics of stem cell research front and center

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Leon Kass speaks about life, cloning

A top Bush bioethics adviser kicked off a new series of discussions about the ethics of stem cell and other scientific research on Thursday (Oct. 20), tangling with Harvard faculty members over the meaning of life and of family, and over the limits that society ought to impose on itself.

The discussion, at times brutally frank, centered on reproductive cloning, a procedure most within the scientific community firmly oppose and against which Harvard University has taken an official stand. Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, presented a chapter of his 2002 book, “Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics,” to the group, gathered for the lunchtime event in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room.

In his presentation, Kass said that traditional human reproduction is tied into the essence of what people, society, and families are. Tinkering with that through reproductive cloning, he said, would diminish all three. He also warned that the use of reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) desensitize society, making it more likely that extreme measures such as reproductive cloning will take place.

“Thirty-five years ago, it would be inconceivable to all but a few, hard-nosed people that the early stages of human life would be a resource to be mined,” Kass said. “Do it if you have to, but don’t say [a human embryo] is not a living organism. Don’t say it’s just a bag of cells.”

Several faculty members applauded Kass’ courage for agreeing to appear before what was a decidedly hostile audience. During the discussion, several faculty members indicated they disagreed with virtually everything Kass said or wrote on the subject.

Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker was among Kass’ harshest critics, saying he disagreed with “every single sentence” of Kass’ chapter on cloning. Pinker said he believed that if reproductive cloning could be done without risk to the child the government shouldn’t ban it, comparing it with the birth of identical twins, though at different times.