National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Presidential panel ponders biotech's moral quandaries


The President’s Council on Bioethics is examining morally challenging questions that may come with “the dawning age of biotechnology.” The council raises these questions in a new report, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The 346-page document’s chief concern is science’s ability to engineer life -- from “better children” to “happy souls” to “ageless bodies.” The report is intended to guide discussions for parents, students, doctors, legislators and anyone else grappling with the promise and peril of the rapidly advancing life sciences.

“It’s perfectly clear that biotechnology is full of promise for the treatment of disease and the relief of suffering,” said Leon Kass, council chairman and University of Chicago bioethicist.

“But precisely because of its growing power to alter the human body and mind, it lends itself to applications ‘beyond therapy’ and is available for use by people who want to look younger, perform better, feel happier and make themselves more perfect.

“It’s these new, powerful ways of satisfying widespread and strong human desires that give rise to some potentially profound challenges, both for individual life and especially for the lives of communities.”

The report was based in part on testimony from child psychiatrists, researchers on aging, memory experts and others.

Kass said the report is calling attention to potential ethical and social issues.

The council is clearly troubled by the prospect of a society with countless possibilities of self-improvements. It devotes nearly an entire chapter to the quest for superior athletic performance, saying it is not farfetched to consider a future in which parents, particularly the wealthy, consider enhancing their children.

“What will and should they do,” the report asks, “when daughter Jenny’s soccer coach tells them she would be a stronger player if they got her genetic muscle treatments, or that she is more likely to make the team if she gets treated?”

The council also sees new possibilities of dramatically prolonging life through genetic manipulations and other techniques. It hypothesizes about life-extension research that could put 180 candles on a birthday cake, yet warns that society should first consider the consequences.

“Would people in a world affected by age retardation be more or less inclined to swear lifelong fidelity ‘until death do us part,’ if their life expectancy at the time of marriage were 80 or 100 more years, rather than, as today, 50?” the report asks. “And would intergenerational family ties be stronger or weaker if there were five or more generations alive at any one time?”

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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