a View from the Trenches
Leon Kass’s, Reflections on Public Bioethics: a View from the Trenches, discusses the Council’s goals and mission, its influence on the public and political debates, and an evaluation of the processes and conclusions the Council faced when producing the five major works in its first term. Kass describes his three main objectives in his reflection: a discussion of public bioethics, an overview of accomplishments the Council produced, as well as general observations of the Council’s tasks and challenges. Throughout his remarks, Kass strongly emphasizes the significance of exploring, reflecting, and utilizing philosophical and anthropological questions to guide bioethical dilemmas and implement policies for the limits on biotechnology. In other words, the importance of approaching bioethical discourses through a truly holistic lens. Furthermore, throughout his reflection, Kass eloquently weaves in the Council’s focus and goal of increasing public understanding and increasing information transparency on how new biotechnologies can affect humanity.
Kass begins by describing the mission of the council, which was to advise the President on bioethical issues that may occur with the advancement of biotechnology. In addition to its advisory role, the committee presents 5 other main objectives and functions, which all involve exploring how biotechnology and biomedicine address issues of larger humanistic and moral significance. When Kass mentioned how the Council is “summoned to search into deep human matters in order to articulate fully just what is humanely at stake” (224), it highlighted to me that the council was not created to only fulfill political or policy-driven duties, rather, to complete tasks that are immensely educational and goals that are profoundly approached through a philosophical, anthropological, and cultural lens.
In addition, Kass continues to illustrate how the Council does not consist of “experts” in science and biomedicine. Instead, the council includes members who recognize how biology and science are deeply intertwined with concepts of human experience and nature. Kass also mentions that the Council has a duty to promote the public discourse on bioethical issues to encourage the wider national public to understand the larger complex issues surrounding policies and judgments, in hopes of promoting a common ground in debates. Reading Kass’s remarks on the Council’s functions enriched my appreciation for anthropology, as applying anthropological tools assists us in answering complex ethical issues – which is a discipline that is typically dismissed. Furthermore, it suggested to me that you don’t have to be a scientist to explore these discussions. What is more essential is having an open mind on the relationship between culture and biology. As an anthropology and human biology major at Emory, I have had the fortunate opportunity to explore these separate subjects while also exploring how they connect with one another. Oftentimes, many of my peers would ask me what anthropology even is as it is quite an underrated discipline. I have had countless interactions where my classmates would even assume that anthropology is the study of archaeology. I strongly appreciate Kass’s message that answering these tough ethical questions surrounding science and biomedicine requires a deep understanding of culture and concepts in Anthropology. What do you think would be an effective strategy to bridge the gap between culture and biology? I think that anthropology courses should be required for current and future students because crucial concepts such as ethnocentrism, and practicing cultural relativity and humility, will allow current and future leaders to embrace all beliefs that may oppose their own beliefs. Another question that I have in mind is: what do you think is more important when having these bioethical discussions: to have greater knowledge in science and medicine, or to have greater knowledge of anthropological and philosophical tools?
Despite Kass indicating that the members of the Council employed anthropologic approaches with a holistic perspective, I also found his reflection quite ironic. Throughout his reflection, he proudly shares the Council’s success by welcoming everybody who is engaged and thoughtful of various ideas. However, I actually interpreted his remarks as quite ethnocentric, because defining human nature and experience, as well as defining the threshold of what is considered moral or immoral, is very diverse and subjective. My interpretations of elements of ethnocentrism embedded in Kass’s remarks were further supported when he argues that the Council was an extremely diverse and heterogeneous group. As Kass describes, the Council’s main goal was to provide a forum for the national public. Thus, I found this passage quite humorous as the makeup of the Council was predominately white and privileged males — which do not represent the entirety of the U.S population. Furthermore, Kass’s pride in having such a diverse group of members demonstrates his ethnocentrism and ignorance. He defends that the Council included “liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and independent; and by religion [the Council] are Protestants, Catholics, Jews” (226), making the Council the “most intellectual diverse national bioethics commission” (227) as evidence against the notion that the Council is a “hyper-politicized group of right-wing fundamentalist.” He then mentions how these charges are sadly continued despite the Council’s “copious” findings. As the U.S is considered a melting pot of cultures, religions, traditions, and beliefs, I found it questionable and ironic how members of the Council felt it was appropriate to address issues for the greater public – given the fact that they are not considering any non-western dominated constructs and beliefs. I was shocked to read how Kass was so stern on how the Council serves as an epitome of diversity while disregarding the importance of representing other religions and beliefs, making his defense insufficient and somewhat making the backlash the Council faced justifiable. As a result, I felt that his arguments and defensiveness on the Council’s heterogenous makeup were ignorant, thereby, decreasing his and the Council’s credibility. Do you think that the Council’s “diversity” or lack thereof is a primary factor in the rumors and negative connotations of the Council by the public? I wonder how the Council’s makeup has changed since its official formation of the Council in 2001.
Throughout our course, we studied various interpretations and definitions of kinship or kin relations in different religious systems, which was a key component in bioethics as kinship narratives prominently shape cultural attitudes, behaviors, and decisions, in accepting or prohibiting the use of biotechnologies — especially for reproductive technologies. As a result, defining kinship must be contextualized and studied through a non-ethnocentric and Western-dominated perspective. Applying my takeaways from this course and Kass’s reflection, I found Kass’s confident claims of the panel’s diversity and cultural competency very amusing, because the Council lacked representation from any non-western dominated religions and societies, such as Hinduism and Islam, which view opposing ideas of reproduction and kin. Another observation I had in mind was how Kass’s reflection lacked explicit ideas of kinship and the diverse interpretations of kin systems, which is fundamental in discussing bioethical issues, especially regarding reproduction. Did you think that Kass’s reflections were sufficient without any mention of kinship?
Kass then addresses the Council’s five different projects produced during their first two-year term (26 months) to “embody [the Council’s] search for a richer bioethics” (229). The five published works include Human Cloning and Human Dignity, Monitoring Stem Cell Research, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies”, and Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass insist that he is “very proud” of the Councils work, commenting that the Council’s accomplishment employed in-depth, moral seriousness, accuracy, fairness, and judiciousness presentations and judgments. Kass spends a significant portion of his remarks commenting and evaluating each volume’s subject and purposes.
Kass begins with Human Cloning and Human Dignity, explaining how the cloning report is intended to address issues of larger humanistic contexts, which include human nature and procreation, healing, biomedical research, and the worth of human life. The report also emphasizes how cloning begins with producing a cloned human embryo, regardless of cloning to reproduce or for biomedical research. Kass then shares how the Council unanimously opposes cloning for reproduction as it poses a myriad of dangerous risks. For instance, cloning to produce children endangers the cloned child, parents, and society’s dignity and freedom. He argues that cloning for procreation purposes would shift procreation to a form of manufacture, which would confuse relationship dynamics and personal identity. Personally, my Christian values and beliefs align with the Council’s prohibition of human cloning because it opposes God’s instructions to be fruitful and multiply (Book of Genesis) and it serves as a violation of the “natural laws” narrated in the bible. However, when considering different societies’ cultures, I can understand the support for cloning to reproduce children. For instance, I predict members of Hinduism would potentially be more flexible on cloning because, as we have learned, Hinduism has many sacred stories and myths that highlight how procreation can occur without sexual intercourse. Furthermore, Hindu people value societal good and unity, leading them to believe that family is not defined by blood or genetic relatedness. Therefore, the Council’s agreement that cloning for procreation would confound relations and identity would contradict Hindu beliefs. This comparison strengthens the idea that ethical issues are incredibly challenging and complex, which is why having representatives of all communities should be considered, to find and form a common ground.
Kass then moves on to cloning for biomedical research, expressing how the Council’s opinions were split. He comments how some Council members viewed cloning to be valuable for increasing knowledge and creating treatments for diseases, while on the other hand, some Council members were concerned with the notion that cloning is “ the deliberate creation, exploitation, and destruction of nascent human life.” (231). As a result of different stances, the Council recommended there should be a permanent ban on cloning to reproduce while cloning for biomedical research had varying consensus. Considering both viewpoints, I struggled to form my own opinions and was very conflicted. I interpreted that cloning for research could create preventative and curative medicine for current and future illness prevalence, which would save tremendous lives. However, I also understand how the cost of gain knowledge is the exploitation of human life. Do those benefits outweigh the cost? Overall, I think the cons of cloning for reproduction are valid, however, I also feel it poses many other ethical issues and can be contradicting. For instance, it poses questions about the role of humans, while also exposing the tendency for humans to be egocentric. If killing human life is wrong and prohibited, what about exploiting or killing animals and biomes for consumer and research purposes? What makes human life more valuable than animals or the environment?
To briefly include, Monitoring Stem Cell Research does not contain any policy or guidelines, but rather sheds light on how to present information to improve public debate on stem cell research. Moreover, the report offers information regarding developments and processes of stem cell research. Kass describes this report in four basic goals (232) and later conveys that the Council’s conclusion was that there is a “possibility of progress toward greater understandings of the issues, and toward more informed public decision making” (233) which would allow the society as a whole to be more appreciative for what is at stake. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness”, in six parts, explores questions about how biotechnology alters and satisfies human desires and aspirations, and how those consequences will affect current and future generations. This report is valuable as it stresses how ethical issues require us to reflect on crucial questions on human nature and experience. As defining human nature and experience is very subjective, what would be the best approach to finding a common ground amongst differences in the characterization of those terms? Next, Kass comments on Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics, which implies how we need to consider what makes “human life rich, deep, and fulfilling” (238) since bioethical issues directly correlate to “the core of humanity” (238). He stresses these anthropological questions are matters that are often neglected in bioethical discussions. Kass then mentions how the Council’s discussions on insights into the human experience, were based on 95 different readings. I wonder who the authors were of the texts that the Council examined. I wonder if the selected books were written by predominately white males as well. Following, in Reproduction and Responsibility, Kass indicates that the goal of the project was to examine the regulatory measures enforced on biotechnology and ART practices. Kass portrays that the Council believed “regulatory institutions have not kept pace with the rapid technological advance… there are also great gaps… there is currently no public authority responsible” (242). I wonder if any present regulatory institutions that monitor biotechnologies have improved since the report was written. To conclude, Kass explains the Council’s major accomplishment of offering legislative proposals targeting principles of human reproduction (243) and the Council forming a practical common ground.
Lastly, Kass addresses general observations, challenges, failures, and success of the Council’s work. He reemphasizes how the Council’s goal was to educate the public to increase understanding of ethical issues and highlights how the public must be involved in decision-making. However, he also recognized how people don’t really care enough or want to put in the effort to be informed: “it is very hard to educate anyone about an issue unless you are prepared to tell them what to do” (245), indicating that the Councils publishments have not successfully impacted the public understandings dramatically. However, Kass acknowledges that the Council’s projects have sparked an enormous amount of attention, thereby, contributing to a larger national debate and providing an effective start.
Evidently, human experience and human nature are intimately connected to biotechnology, requiring us to deeply reflect on what the crucial components of human life truly are. In reality, people typically tend to avoid action or form an opinion on issues unless it directly affects them. Thus, I think bridging the gap between culture and biology is of paramount significance to exploring bioethics; whether that’s by increasing awareness regarding the direct consequences of biotechnology on human life, or by requiring educational systems to ask students humanistic questions to promote more holistic and effective debates.