Nation & World

Legal, ethical limits to bioengineering debated

4 min read

It is a truism that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” but late Tuesday afternoon (March 20), in the Ames Courtroom of Harvard Law School’s (HLS) Austin Hall, bioethics made two sets of philosophical bedfellows as strange as any Washington has seen.

The panelists for a discussion titled “Re-engineering Human Biology: What Should Be the Legal and Ethical Limits?” were Ronald M. Dworkin, Leon R. Kass, Richard A. Posner, and Michael Sandel. Based on the bodies of their past work, Dworkin and Sandel, “liberals” by most standards, and Kass and Posner, generally seen as staunch conservatives, would have been expected to pair off together.

But as HLS Dean Elena Kagan, the event moderator, told the overflow audience, the event would present a “rare opportunity to witness some unaccustomed alliances. Ronald Dworkin and Richard Posner have given each other some hard knocks over the years,” Kagan said, but would probably be on the same side this time. Similarly, Kass and Sandel, who took opposing positions on a number of issues as members of the President’s Council on Bioethics, were likely to be aligned on placing limits on bioengineering.

“What we have here, today,” Kagan said, explaining the purpose of the gathering — a public session of an invitation-only gathering of some of the nation’s, if not the world’s, leading bioethicists, “are the makings of an ethics debate on enhancing humanity…On the one hand, biotechnology raises hopes for dramatic improvements” in the human condition. “On the other hand,” she said, “biotechnology raises fears of a ‘Brave New World’… in which the human essence is lost.

“Should biotechnology be used only to treat disease,” Kagan added, “or also to enhance” people?

HLS grad Dworkin, of New York University School of Law and University College, London, began the discussion by noting that the “line between treatment and enhancement is a very fragile one, and it moves all the time.”

Opponents of enhancement, he said, fear that if these things come to pass, “we would be in moral freefall,” but humans are always pushing “back the frontier of the ‘given.’” Antibiotics, public education, and the development of high-speed transportation all eliminated “givens,” Dworkin said, and they all improved life.

Kass of the University of Chicago, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and Hertog Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, warned that “if things can enhance, they can degrade.” It’s impossible, he said, to “improve the lives” of people through genetic and pharmaceutical enhancement without some agreement on “what a good human being is.”

In medicine, said Kass, there are standards that govern the uses of technology. “But when you go beyond medicine, you don’t have standards. … [Is] a particular ‘improvement’ an improvement, or is it a degradation?”

Former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and lecturer at the University of Chicago Richard Posner argued that Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” to which many refer when debating bioengineering, is “completely misunderstood: It’s a satire on the British class system, [with] no application to our culture or our system whatsoever.”

“If you could increase the average IQ of the human race,” Posner added, “it would probably be a very substantial advantage.”

Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government and head of the Program in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute — one of the sponsors of the debate and conference — aligned himself with Kass, noting that “we choose our friends, and we choose our spouses, at least partially on the basis of traits we find attractive. But it’s an important part of parenting that we don’t choose our children.”

Unconditional love of children, and their unpredictability, are important facts of life, Sandel said. The author of an about-to-be-released book titled “The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering,” said that the “qualities of children are unpredictable, and here’s a domain of chance where the fact that the domain is governed by chance is morally important.”

The occasionally contentious, occasionally humorous session was also co-sponsored by the Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, and Harvard University’s Program on Ethics and Health.