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What's a human?

"What's a human?" Continued...

Issue: "Five-man legacy," Jan. 28, 2006

WORLD What do you think about the cloning of embryos for use in stem-cell research?

KASS Leaving aside the embryo question, I think the claims for so-called "therapeutic cloning" are vastly overrated. I don't think we need this research to do what the scientists want to do, and I don't think it holds out the promise of this rejection-proof tissue transplantation. I don't believe that for a minute. I think there are alternate ways of getting exactly the same kind of genetically controlled stem cells. None of the major biotech companies in this country-none of them-are putting their money behind therapeutic cloning.

WORLD What did you learn during your tenure as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics about the government's role in regulating biotechnology?

KASS There is no simple answer. The benefits of medical science and biotechnology, especially those related to treating disease and improving nutrition, are a good thing, and we don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. In a very, very small number of areas, cloning being one, I think we should erect legal barriers to practices that would degrade human beings. I also think we should oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Short of things like that, I do not favor the blunt instrument of legal prohibition. I favor guidelines and regulatory practices that would try to distinguish between more innocent and less innocent uses of these technologies-keeping the benefits and minimizing the harms.

But getting such regulation will be difficult. Scientists and the biotech industry do not want it. Some pro-life groups have opposed government's having any involvement in this area at all. So there is a political difficulty in getting past what is largely a system of anarchy.

WORLD You have written a commentary on the book of Genesis in which you talk about how studying it over the years has influenced your thinking about human life. Can you cite any other parts of the Bible or meaningful texts that have had a similar influence?

KASS I'm not aware of how a particular theological view is responsible for what I have to say when I write about bioethical topics. To be certain, it's probably in there, but I don't feel myself writing on these topics, for example, as a Jew. I feel myself writing as a thoughtful human being, taking help from the best that has been thought and written, and I will gladly take help from wherever I can get it.

WORLD Now that you have stepped down as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, where will you focus your attention next?

KASS At the moment, I'd like to follow up on ethical caregiving in our aging society and the crisis with long-term care that is virtually here. That, I think, is a very large and important ethical and social question: How are we going to care for the increasing number of people-hundreds of thousands-who can no longer care for themselves? And [how do we] find the right course between not abandoning them on the one hand, but also not torturing them with every conceivable technology that would extend their life in burdensome ways?

I'm also interested in trying to help to develop a clearer understanding of the idea of human dignity that we need to defend in this age of biotechnology. The council has talked about human dignity, but we have yet to make a clear enough case as to what that consists of, how it is threatened, and what we have to do to defend it.

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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