Is there a limit to how far bioscientists are willing to go?
11:00 PM, Jan 31, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
BIOTECHNOLOGY is becoming dangerously close to raging out of control. Scientists are engaging in ever increasingly macabre experiments that threaten to mutate nature and the human condition at the molecular level. Worse, many scientists have made it clear that society has no right to apply the brakes.
According to this view, scientists have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to conduct research. This means that only the most compelling state interest--such as preventing the release of a plague--justifies society placing any constraints on scientific inquiry. Moreover, only scientists have the right to judge whether a proposed area of scientific inquiry is moral. As for the rest of us, our job is to support research with our taxes, applaud when benefits are derived, and otherwise mind our own business. Indeed, many scientists literally believes that in science, virtually "anything goes."
The latest evidence of this phenomenon can be found in an article headlined "Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy," published in the current National Geographic News, which reports that scientists are creating creatures that are mostly animal but part human. Actually, this isn't really news. Such experiments have been going on for some time. Indeed, the primary reason that Ian Wilmut made Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was to learn how to use cloning to create a herd of genetically altered "transgenic" sheep bioengineered to possess a human gene. Their purpose was laudable. Wilmut intended to "pharm" the sheep, that is, obtain substances from ewes' milk that could be used in the creation of human medicine.
I see nothing intrinsically wrong with creating transgenic animals or plants that contain miniscule amounts of human DNA in order to derive substantial human benefit, and acknowledge much human good could result. As William B. Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics once told me, a chromosome or a gene per se is not the locus of human dignity and moral worth.
But how much human content in animals is too much human content in animals? Deciding this issue is becoming an increasingly urgent task, as bioscientists are aggressively pushing the envelope by creating animal hybrids that are increasingly human. For example, Stanford University's Irving Weissman has repeatedly stated in recent months that he may soon fabricate a mouse that would have a human brain. (He has already created a mouse containing millions of human brain cells.)
Weissman's stated purpose is to help the human condition by learning how the brain works. But helping the human condition can become an excuse for casting aside profound ethical concerns. Besides, Weissman apparently believes that as a scientist he has the right to do just about whatever he wants. "Anybody who puts their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science," he told the National Geographic News, "where they want to impose their will . . . interfere with science that could save lives." In other words, Weissman can impose his will on the rest of us because he believes an experiment is worth conducting, but society has no right to impose its collective will on him.
Weissman is wrong. None of us has the right to do what we want just because we want to do it--no matter how laudable our motives. We live in a society based on ordered liberty that protects individual freedom but prevents anarchic license. Thus every powerful institution has societal-imposed checks and balances placed upon them, including science. For example, using human subjects in dangerous medical research could certainly garner very useful scientific information. But our laws limit what can be done with people in research precisely because ethics and morality matter and are as important to a free and modern society as is science. Indeed, this was the powerful motivator for the Nuremberg Code.
Thus, it wouldn't be Wesley Smith or Mary Doe telling Weissman he could not make a mouse with a human brain. It would be society--assuming, of course, that we determine through our elective representatives that such experiments should not be conducted.
And decide we must. But to do this right and strike the proper balance will take much time and careful deliberation. Unfortunately, biotechnologists like Weissman apparently won't wait and are instead charging ahead at mach speed toward the proverbial brave new world impervious to the profound public disquiet they are causing.
This is a risky strategy. Such hubris and indifference to public sensitivities and ethical qualms could spark a powerful public backlash. If scientists don't slow down and exercise prudent self restraint, they may find themselves unduly constrained by the law--to the detriment of both science and society--and will only have themselves to blame.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.