Jewish World Review May 9, 2003 / 7 Iyar, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Beyond Frankenstein: The Presidential Bioethics Bookshelf | In a time of war, domestic political concerns are easy to overlook. But there's one issue that became steadily more important throughout the last century, and will only become more pressing in the near future: bioethics. How much should we modify our bodies? How much should we modify the bodies of our children? Words that used to be sci-fi plot devices are now part of our political discourse: cloning, immortality, genetic engineering.

We're all struggling to figure out how to respond to the challenges posed by technological developments. So far, two major "sides" have emerged, both of which have problems: the restrictionists and the rationalists.

The restrictionists' most famous representative is Professor Leon Kass, Chairman of the Presidential Commission on Bioethics. Kass is sharply skeptical of bioethics advances from in vitro fertilization to lifespan enhancement. He's even expressed some qualms about organ transplants and carving up cadavers for medical research. Kass is perhaps best known for coining the phrase "the wisdom of repugnance"; he argues that if we feel a deep-seated revulsion against certain tech innovations, like reproductive cloning, that revulsion may signal the presence of an unavoidable fact of human nature that we shouldn't be messing with.

Although Kass has many other claims to make in support of his positions, "the wisdom of repugnance" has taken on a life of its own, and has done singularly unhelpful work in the public debate. There are two main problems with the repugnance argument: First, people have often felt repugnance that reflected cultural norms, not human nature--think of how a Southern planter might feel when he saw a black man kiss a white woman. Repugnance changes. Far fewer people, I expect, recoil from the sight of two men kissing today than would have in 1955. Far more people, though, recoil from the sight of a parent hitting a child. So even in these most deep-rooted, intimate relationships, our "repugnance triggers" can shift; repugnance alone can't stand as an argument.

And the whole reason the bioethics debate even occurs, of course, is that not everyone is repulsed by what Kass abhors. "Wisdom of repugnance" arguments can seem like an appeal not just to unreliable emotions, but to emotions that can't be communicated or debated, and that therefore simply shut one side of the debate out entirely. How can you debate a shudder?

The rationalists have their own problems. Reason magazine is probably the best place to find rationalists (as the mag's name might indicate). The rationalists generally fail because of what their philosophy fails to take into account; rationalism is a philosophy of wants, self-interest, mind, freedom, equality, and contract relationships, whereas familial life is often an arena where duties, sacrifice, physical and hormonal impulses, constraint, inequality, and status relationships must be honored. The arguments that back up that sentence are too long for me to get into here!--but for anyone interested, I strongly recommend Maggie Gallagher's Enemies of Eros, especially Section II, "Sex and Justice."

The rationalists often lack respect for their opponents' arguments, precisely because, in their view, Kass and his ilk (it's always bad to have an ilk) are not making arguments at all. "You guys hate science and scientists! You're just a bunch of fluffy feelings fascists! You killed Galileo!" It's hard to debate a shudder, but it's equally hard to debate people who assume a shudder is all you bring to the table.

This is why the online "bookshelf" recently posted by the Bioethics Commission is so exciting. The bookshelf, found at , offers a way to advance a debate that has seemed stalled.

The bookshelf is divided into five sections: "Among the Generations," "Scientific Aspirations," "The Search for Perfection," "Vulnerability and Suffering," and "Many Stages, One Life." Each section contains several selected works with discussion questions for personal reflection or group study. For example, "Many Stages, One Life" suggests Peter Pan, and asks questions like, "What is Neverland? Why are there no parents there? What is Mrs. Darling trying to accomplish when she tries to 'tidy up' her children's minds [at the beginning of the novel]? Can she, or any mother, succeed? Should she even try?"

The selections do an admirable job of giving voice to both "sides"--or, more accurately, to the worldviews that underly both sides. Restrictionists will have to grapple with stories that draw out the limitations and tragedies attendant on earlier familial, generational, and medical customs. (There's a heartbreaking story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," that should provoke both "sides" to sharp self-questioning about their respective understandings of suffering.) There are several excerpts that depict different motives for scientific exploration--conquest of nature; comforting mankind and relieving suffering; sheer wonder and play; prideful imposition of oneself upon others. And there is much here that rationalists need to grapple with: Through these works, a concept of universal human nature does emerge, subtly illuminating the utter centrality of parent/child relationships, natural generation, aging, suffering, pride or hubris, and the need to honor the unchosen. Amid all the changing cultural habits and beliefs, there are some constants that speak to us across the ages.

Even if these facets of human nature are changeable, the testimony of art and history shows that these features are so central to our nature that we have virtually no idea of how we could ever proceed without them. We are not making up our lives from reason alone.

This column is not meant as an argument against the rationalists; I don't have the space for that, and at any rate I don't think it would be nearly as helpful as simply suggesting that everyone, rationalist, restrictionist, undecided, or none of the above, go check out the bioethics bookshelf site. Here's a government initiative that truly respects the citizenry (by assuming these difficult topics are not matters for experts but for all of us to debate and understand), that advances public debate, and that could even change minds, hearts, and lives.

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11/07/02: Judgment Day: Time for the GOP to Make the Case for Sound Jurisprudence

© 2003, Eve Tushnet