"By the end of the 21st Century," Reason magazine science editor Ronald Bailey predicts in Liberation Biology, "the typical American may attend a family reunion in which five generations are playing together. And great-great-great grandma, at 150 years old, will be as vital... as her thirty-year old great-great-grandson with whom she's playing touch football."
Others recoil at the unnaturalness of it all and worry, as Edwin Black does in War Against the Weak, a history of American eugenics, that science's increasing ability to control life at the molecular level could lead to the creation of "a superior race or species" that would dominate the genetically unenhanced "inferior subset of humanity."
Look out America: The trajectory of science is coming into conflict with venerable human values and even our self-definition as a species, raising urgent ethical issues that will have to be answered before it is too late:
- Does human life have intrinsic value simply because it is human? The "sanctity/equality of life ethic" holds that all human beings have equal moral worth, regardless of their abilities or capacities. This objective standard is now threatened by "personhood theory," which holds that rights only belong to "persons," a status earned by possessing minimal cognitive capacities. If personhood theory supplants sanctity of life as the governing ethic of society, it would open the door to harvesting organs from people like Terri Schiavo or permitting biotechnologists to "farm" cloned fetuses for use in drug testing or experiments in genetic engineering.
- How much human DNA in animals is too much human DNA in animals? Human/animal hybrids, called chimeras, already exist. Promoters of this research note that inserting human DNA into animals could result in great human good. For example, human proteins could be obtained from the milk of these altered animals for use in pharmaceuticals, a process known as "pharming." Others, however, may be planning a far more radical course. For example, futurist author James Hughes advocates "uplifting" chimpanzees genetically to "have human intellectual capacities" as a way of proving that "personhood, not humanness" should "be the ticket to citizenship." Whether and where to draw lines on creating animal/human chimeras is becoming an increasingly urgent question.
- Should any animal DNA ever be permitted to be engineered into human embryos? If scientists can insert human DNA into animal embryos, then animal DNA could just as easily be inserted into human embryos. Such experiments are far from unthinkable. A new social movement called "transhumanism" advocates the creation of a "post human species," which would include using animal genes in progeny to increase strength or make senses more acute.
- Is there an absolute right to procreate? Once upon a time, having children was generally conducted in an orderly way: Men and women got married, made love, and had babies--although not always in that order. But now, innovative fertility treatments and the prospect of human cloning raise several urgent ethical issues: Should a 65 year-old woman be allowed to receive technological assistance giving birth? How about an 80 year-old? Should a man be allowed a uterus transplant so he can become a mother, as bioethicist Joseph Fletcher once suggested? Will it be acceptable for a career woman to use animal or artificial wombs to gestate her baby so as not have her professional life inconvenienced by a wanted pregnancy?
- Is there a right to have genetically related offspring? Reproductive cloning is off the table for now because cloning isn't safe. But what if it were? Some bioethicists already assert that outlawing reproductive cloning, at least for gay or infertile couples, would be unconstitutional because "procreative liberty" includes the right to have biologically-related offspring.
- Is there a right to genetically engineer offspring? Eradicating genetic disease is one thing. But there is a chorus of advocates who want to "improve" our children through germ line genetic manipulations. Some go so far as to assert that the right to procreate includes engineering the type of child that is desired. Thus, bioethicist Gregory E. Pence suggested in Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?, that parents be allowed to "aim for a certain type" of child "in the same way that great breeders... try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family."
- Is there a constitutional right to conduct scientific research? This may prove to be the mother of all biotechnological controversies. Some scientists, angered at attempts to outlaw human cloning, are already contemplating seeking a court-declared constitutional right to conduct research. In this view, scientific experimentation is analogous to a reporter's right to research a story. Opponents counter that finding such a right in the constitution would be akin to a reporter setting fire to a building so he could report on the arson. This much is clear: If a right to research is found in the Constitution, society will be stripped of the ability to meaningfully regulate science except in furtherance of a compelling state interest--such as preventing a deadly plague.
When considering these and other controversies, it is important to remember that they are not about science so much as about values, ethics, and morality. For as Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, has said: "All of the natural boundaries are up for grabs. All of the boundaries that have defined us as human beings, boundaries between a human being and an animal on one side and between a human being and a super human being or a god on the other. The boundaries of life, the boundaries of death. These are the questions of the Twenty-First Century and nothing could be more important."
First published by SFGate.com