At the bioethics council, human nature denies human nature.

Science, technology, and life.
March 7 2005 3:29 AM

The Thing Is

At the bioethics council, human nature denies human nature.

Is it allright to create and destroy something almost human? That's the big topic at Friday's meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics. Council member Bill Hurlbut, a Stanford biologist, wants to end-run the moral debate over stem cells. He proposes to follow the recipe for human cloning—put the nucleus of a body cell into a gutted egg cell—but turn off a crucial gene so that the resulting "biological artifact" produces stem cells without organizing itself into an embryo. According to a draft white paper prepared by council staff, "Several scientists have indicated that they believe [the plan] can easily be made to work, and a few are apparently ready to try it out in non-human animals."

What do the assembled M.D.'s and Ph.D's think of this idea? "I'm not sure we ought to be creating these bizarre organisms," frets council member Charles Krauthammer. His colleague Robert George assures him that the artifact wouldn't be an organism: "It would have to be a distinct non-embryonic creature for Bill to—or, not creature, but embryonic entity—for Bill to endorse it." Krauthammer pounces on the gaffe. "I'm afraid it was that slip of the tongue which troubles me," he says. "You call it an entity; I see it as a creature. ... That's why I'm repelled by it in principle."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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George asks Krauthammer whether the kind of tumor to which Hurlbut has likened the artifact—a teratoma, which grows rudimentary bits of body parts—is a creature. It's "an attempt at a human that didn't go right," Krauthammer ventures. "I'm not sure we ought to want to reproduce that." He alludes to an essay by council chairman Leon Kass: "It could be what Leon calls sort of the wisdom of revulsion." ("Repugnance," Kass whispers, correcting him.) George says weirdness and repugnance aren't moral problems, but Krauthammer adds, "Repugnant, weird, and somewhat human. If it's just repugnant and weird, it's just an aesthetic issue. If it's somewhat human, it's a moral issue."

This is the confusion into which Hurlbut's idea has thrown the council. On one side are people who think it's icky but can't explain why. On the other side are people who deny it's a creature but can't get over the resemblance. How is an attempt an organism? How does humanity make weirdness immoral? What the hell is a non-embryonic entity? Don't ask these doctors and ethicists. Biotechnology is outrunning their comprehension.

What exactly is the alleged non-creature? Hurlbut calls it an artifact. George calls it an entity. Krauthammer calls it "an aborted attempt to produce a human." Council member Paul McHugh calls it a "thing." Council member Peter Lawler calls it "a third category that's not life or non-life but kind of a near-life experience." Council member Michael Sandel calls it "an embryolike being ... the creature or the being or the thing created, the artifact." Council member James Q. Wilson sputters, "We can't even adequately describe these things. We're inventing names as we go along."

And what exactly is wrong with creating it? It's "creepy," says Sandel. It's "a tragedy," says Krauthammer. It's "begun to bother me," says council member Dan Foster. It's a "pollution of the human genome that I have a yuck factor towards," says McHugh.

Yuck? Pollution? We're already hip deep in it. "We give people a dose of disease, vaccination," Hurlbut observes. We "send in reengineered cells, targeted toxins. We grow sheets of skin from cells harvested from foreskin. We cut the body." The whole point of stem-cell research, he points out, is greater power to manipulate human tissue. "Are you going to grow human parts apart from bodies?" he asks. "Are you going to have factories of kidneys? Are we going to grow brains in vats?"

We're also creating embryolike beings while telling ourselves they aren't embryos. Last year, scientists in South Korea cloned a human embryo (or whatever you want to call it) and grew it far enough along to extract stem cells. At Friday's meeting, McHugh insists such creations "won't become human." Hurlbut replies that Dolly the sheep had to have been an embryo, but McHugh repeats that the product of cloning is "nonviable." Sandel denounces Hurlbut's plan as "genetically engineering and using an embryolike being" for any purpose. Hurlbut asks incredulously how Sandel can complain about a "mutant human being," since Sandel has endorsed cloning and has suggested an ethical distinction between zygones and "clonotes."

Soon, Hurlbut finds himself squeezed between the yuck factor and the not-an-embryo defense. Council member Janet Rowley says his artifact wouldn't be like a teratoma because it's really just a "human embryo with one gene defect." Council member Francis Fukuyama complains that the entire discussion has left him more confused. Hurlbut pleads that teratomas were just supposed to be an analogy. Given "our natural moral sentiments," he says, it's hard for us to accept that we can "create [human] parts apart from the whole, so that we're not violating human dignity."

I think Hurlbut is right about the natural science of humans but wrong about human nature. He's right that we can make human parts and artifacts without the whole. He's right that we're doing so now and that this power will grow. But the superficial resistance he's trying to dispel is connected to the deep thing he's trying to protect. Our natural moral sentiments—the yuck factor—are guided by analogy and rooted in dignity. It's in our nature to see the resemblance between an embryolike being and ourselves. And it's in our dignity to deny that the difference between us and something intrinsically meaningless can be so small, even if it's true.

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