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Jewish World Review April 30, 2001/ 7 Iyar, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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Use the surgeon general post to help nation debate biotechnology issues -- The Surgeon general may not be the most important job in government. But it can be.

The office carries moral authority unlike any other. It is responsible for perhaps the greatest public health success in American history, the reduction of a deeply ingrained cultural habit - smoking - from 42 percent to 24 percent in a single generation. (Its only competitor is Prohibition, which cut cirrhosis deaths by half - but that it is a more complicated story.)

We've had great surgeons general like Luther Terry, who issued the landmark smoking report in 1964. And we've had disastrous surgeons general like Joycelyn Elders, who managed to trivialize the office. My personal favorite was Julius Richmond, who served in the late '70s. I once asked him how he enjoyed the job. "I love it," he replied, "but it does get tiring stamping all those cigarette boxes."

When the current surgeon general steps down, the Bush administration will be presented with an extraordinary opportunity. History will care little about the budget battles of 2001. It will care greatly about the most significant event of our time, the revolution in biology. It will ask where were we when the genie left the bottle, and what we did about it.

For the last half-century our consciousness was dominated by atomic power. Now, atomic power is good for three things: propelling submarines, generating electricity and destroying the world. But its transformative power pales in comparison to the power of biotechnology to alter the development, the structure, the very consciousness of human beings.

Creating a thinking organism from nothing is an achievement of such staggering complexity that it took 3 billion years of chemical tinkering. And yet now we are learning how to insert ourselves at almost any point in the process to alter and redirect it to our will.

It is a power as great as the domestication of fire. It will define the future as nothing else. And the great decisions - about cloning and stem cells and other forms of embryonic manipulation - will be made now. Who will make the case on these questions if not the surgeon general?

The Washington buzz has a Texas physician and aerobics expert as a leading candidate for the job. This is unfortunate. He is a worthy man, and urging Americans to eat less meat and more vegetables is a worthy cause.

But the office can be far better used.

We need a surgeon general who understands the genetic revolution that is upon us. And who can launch and direct a national debate on what to do about it. We need a person like professor Leon Kass of the University of Chicago.

A doctor by training, a philosopher by nature, he is one of those rare Socratic beings who can get you to see what you have never seen - and get you to like it. He has practiced medicine, published papers in biochemistry, written and reflected on everything from Darwin to Babel, from cloning to euthanasia.

Thursday, a bill to ban human cloning went before Congress. Who can make the case against asexual human reproduction when it seems to promise such benefits to, say, infertile couples? Kass will be there testifying, having made that difficult case ever since he published "The Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban the Cloning of Human Beings" four years ago in the The New Republic.

The Netherlands, which for more than a decade tolerated euthanasia, has just become the first country to legalize it. Who will make the case against the siren song of "rational" death (by pointing out, for example, that large numbers of elderly Dutch are killed without their consent by their doctors)? Kass has been making the case for years.

Imbued with a deep sense of civility and an abiding respect for his philosophical adversaries, Kass is uniquely suited to help the country think through momentous questions that are no longer theoretical. And there is no better place from which to do it than the office of surgeon general.

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© 2001, Washington Post Co.