“I think modern science is a religion for many of its practitioners, by which I mean they have utter faith in the sufficiency of their concepts to give full account of life. But science cannot be a source of wisdom. By design it is morally neutral and indifferent to the pursuit of wisdom about human life……If modernity went wrong, it was in taking partial truths of science to be the whole truth about the world………..no purely biological account of man will ever be able to do justice to our lived experience as human beings.”—Dr. Leon Kass, Founding Chairman, President’s Council on Bioethics.
“When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it…….We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early.”—Dr. Peter Singer, Professor and Chair, Department of Bioethics, Princeton University.
These two points of view help to illustrate the difficultly of finding consensus in the scientific research and bioethics communities on the proper limits of science as it pushes us ever more rapidly and intensely into the debate on the nature of what is meant by being human. There are those like Singer and many others of a utilitarian persuasion who cannot seem to find any moral limits to this pursuit. And there are those like Kass, Charles Krauthammer, and others who are scientists by training, but who maintain a certain awe and reverence for the mysteries of life and the wisdom of the ages, however humanly limited they may be in their own wisdom about how it should be specifically applied to today’s scientific breakthroughs.
President Bush’s veto of the bill that would have overturned his executive order imposing limits on federal funding of stem cell research should not have been his first. I can think of a handful of others that should have preceded it, such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, the atrocious agriculture subsidy appropriation of 2002 which is now helping to scuttle the Doha free trade talks, and the Medicare “reform” bill, to name a few. And there might even have been a better answer for the research funding limits he imposed or a different place to draw the moral line. But at least he is willing to draw the line somewhere and, if only in that respect, the veto was appropriate because the proposed law contained no meaningful limits.
We need to get beyond the notion of “if it can be done, it will be done” in the name of scientific “progress”, and, as Krauthammer suggests, get to a serious discussion of the real threat, which is “not so much the destruction of existing human embryos……the real threat to our humanity is the creation of new human life willfully for the sole purpose of making it the means to someone else’s end……The real Brave New World looming before us is the rise of the industry of human manufacture……..”.
Despite claims to the contrary, with the exception of the overwhelming opposition to human cloning, the polling on this issue is far from conclusive on a public consensus, so the President’s veto serves the purpose of sending us back to the drawing board. There has been some high quality work done by Dr. Kass and his colleagues, including specific legislative recommendations that have languished because of “embryo politics” from both the left and the right. We now have a President who is as sympathetic as we are ever likely to have to the concerns of human dignity we should all share, who has been presented with a meaningful body of work to move us forward in establishing wisdom in policy in an area that ranks with national security and public education as the most urgent of the early 21st century. We should get on with it.