The Magazine

Biotech's Boiling Point

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By J. BOTTUM, FOR THE EDITORS
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YOU KNOW THE STORY. The frog in a saucepan on the stove will die--because the temperature creeps up so smoothly and stealthily that he's never given the clue that now is the time to hop out. And so he boils to death, for if the rise from 70 degrees to 71 degrees didn't make him jump, why should the rise from 150 to 151?

We've never entirely believed the story--or its allegorical applications. Surely the frog will jump, and people, too, before the water gets too hot. But then, again, while America has been watching the pacification of Iraq, and the California gubernatorial recall, the temperature has been rising in the biotech revolution, and no one has jumped yet.

The artificial womb reached the prototype stage, and the heat went up a click. Researchers in Pennsylvania made embryonic stem cells from mice differentiate into egg cells, and up we went another click. Technicians in Israel and Holland discovered how to force the ovaries of aborted girls to produce the hormones for eggs, and up we went yet again. A scientist named Norbert Gleicher in Chicago inserted the cells of a male embryo into a female embryo to create a hermaphrodite chimera. Click. Researchers in China have constructed a three-parent embryo. Click--and click, and click, the dystopia of eugenic biotechnology is steaming all around us. And however disquieting all this seems, we are like the frog in the saucepan, for no one of these rises of temperature has yet made us jump.

The problem may be that biotechnology comes to us in discrete bits, and each new bit inures and vulgarizes us sufficiently to accept the next. Last month, the director of stem-cell research at Edinburgh University declared that British couples have a moral duty to visit local clinics and donate their eggs and sperm to create embryos for biotech research--and if you had suggested that it would come to this during the arguments about in-vitro fertilization 25 years ago, you would have been labeled an extremist and an apocalyptic fool. If during the abortion debates of the 1980s you had suggested that the day would come when the little ovaries of aborted girls were harvested for their eggs, you would have been denounced for using the most outrageous and implausible arguments. The Cassandras who worried about the human-genome project were mocked and ignored.

Vague disquiet is not the answer to all this. Each new bit of the biotech revolution arrives as though unconnected with every other bit. And often the researchers announce their motives are the best in the world. Who could be against perfect babies? Who doesn't want to live another 20 years? Who could oppose making people happy?

But the world the combination of these things is creating threatens to be a world both inhuman and inhumane. And unless we decide what all this science is for, it won't be for anything except its own power to remake the world. How many babies is it all right to strip-mine for their parts before we get a perfect baby? How many is it legitimate to get wrong before we get one right? How will society be changed by greater life expectancy? How much of human drive will disappear in a culture of happy drugs?

To fail to decide these questions is not to leave them open. It is to close the questions forever, and to give permanent victory to the people who want to push ahead without thought about the cost.

One helpful sign is the appearance this week of "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness," a report from the president's council on bioethics. It would be an extraordinary document to appear from almost any source, but its origin in a government body suggests we have not yet lost the capacity to discuss the most fundamental questions in the political arena.

Beginning by questioning the usefulness, in current medical science, of the traditional distinction between therapy for disease and enhancement of the human person, "Beyond Therapy" perceives a deep and abiding unity in the wildly scattered bits of the biotech endeavor. The effort to make better babies blends seamlessly into the hunt to enhance human performance--which slides imperceptibly into the drive for ageless bodies, which in turn merges with the longing for the pharmacology of happy souls.

The report examines fairly the likely benefits of each biotech field and lists the "possible hidden costs of success" were we to make those perfect, enhanced, ageless, happy humans. Can the "quest for self-improvement" ever end up making the self "smaller or meaner"? Might "a preoccupation with youthful bodies or longer life" jeopardize, in the end, "the prospect for living well"? And could the demand for "contentment or self-esteem" finally "lead us away from the activities or attachments essential to these goals"?

"Beyond Therapy" doesn't answer these questions directly, but it provides the material necessary for the public debate in which we might answer them--as answer them we must, and soon. Before the water starts to bubble.

--J. Bottum, for the Editors