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Transcript for:

Science and the Soul

With guest DR. LEON KASS
PBS feed date July 18, 2002

At Pfizer we’re spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, and the Dodge Jones Foundation.

(opening animation)

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Gene therapy, stem cells, cloning, most people, including me, don’t quite fathom it all. Are we coming closer to controlling the fundamental code of human existence? And is that the good news or the bad news? Might the persistent march of science actually change the nature of humanity? What are the ethics of our new biogenetic circumstance?
To find out, we are joined on Think Tank this week by Dr. Leon Kass: physician, biochemist, medical ethicist and now chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Leon Kass is also the Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. The topic before the house:” Science and the Soul.” This week on Think Tank.
Ben Wattenberg: Leon Kass, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. I wonder if we could begin at the beginning. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
Leon Kass: I was born in Chicago, Ben, in 1939, to European immigrants. Yiddish speaking. Grew up on the south side of Chicago. I went to medical school at the University of Chicago Graduated medical school. Did a year of internship…..
Ben Wattenberg: In what field?
Leon Kass: In internal medicine, and I was probably headed for a career in neurology, which I’d done some special work in neurology in medical school. And for a variety of reasons I went back to graduate school in 1963 and did a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Harvard.
Ben Wattenberg: So you are Doctor Doctor Leon Kass.
Leon Kass: I was a Doctor Doctor Leon Kass. And as it turns out the two things for which I was formally trained, I don’t practice and what I practice I have no training in.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, (laughs) let’s go back to that. Did you ever actually practice medicine?
Leon Kass: I did a year of internship. Afterwards I did some work in the clinics, while I was still doing my biochemistry.
Ben Wattenberg: Did you like it, hands-on medicine?
Leon Kass I have to say, and this might have been a clue that there was something a little odd about me, I loved the patients more than I loved the intellectual puzzles of the diseases. I used to spend all kinds of extra time in the clinic just listening to people’s stories and trying to find out who this is. My dream at that time was to become a professor of science and medicine at the University of Chicago, where I could also do some of these other humanistic things for which I had acquired a taste. I always had, as a result of my rearing, a kind of keen interest in moral and social and political questions, and particularly an interest in questions of justice and questions of human decency, the legacy of my home.
Ben Wattenberg: Were you an orthodox Jew?
Leon Kass: Not at all. In fact, the family was socialist and secular. I wasn’t bar mitzvahed. I later learned that the moral teaching of my home was really sort of parasitic on the Jewish tradition. It was the prophets without the law. But that was my moral legacy. The change took place really by accident. My wife and I went to Mississippi to do civil rights work in 1965. I came back with this puzzle. Why was there more honor and dignity in these uneducated black farmers on the delta than there seemed to be in my fellow graduate students at Harvard? And if it were really true, that the only bar to a man’s flowering into the moral creature that he is meant to be was the presence of religious superstition or poverty or lack of opportunity. In other words if the enlightenment teaching that I had been reared on was true, how could this be? And that gave me pause about what I really thought about the world.
Second, it began to dawn on me as a result of new developments in biology that there were large moral questions that you didn’t have to go to Mississippi to find. In fact, they were rolling around right at my feet. And whereas, with respect to segregation, what was right and wrong was a clear as could be and the only question was what to do about it and how. With respect to the challenges raised by the new biology, the problem was how to forestall the undesirable consequences of what was coming without strangling this wonderful enterprise from which we are all beneficiaries.
And what I really saw was that biology was bringing into being powers to alter the human body and mind that would go beyond just healing people with sicknesses and restoring them to normal, but indeed, did have the power to transform human nature. And at that time there were a fair number of people who weren’t shy about talking about their eugenic visions about, you know, how this technology could be used to produce improved human beings. And those prospects caused me concern and led me to take up some of these matters.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, I mean, but the process you are describing can be called technological progress.
Leon Kass: Let’s put it this way, it’s technological change.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, now you were against, I understand, the idea of in-vitro fertilization.
Leon Kass: Cautiously. My views on it were complicated. I thought before it was done that it would be an unethical experiment on the unborn because you couldn’t show whether it was safe. It was then done and it was shown, shown in quotation marks because no one has done a really careful study of all these children that have been born that way. But people did it. It turned out to be relatively safe. And whether it was ethical to have tried it in the first place, the question was settled as a result of practice. The other objection I had to it, or objection isn’t quite the word, the worry I had, was once you had human life in human hands you really had opened the door to all kinds of manipulations beyond simply providing infertile couples a child of their own. And, in fact, one of the first articles I wrote linked the possibility of in-vitro fertilization with the coming prospect of human cloning. And I suggested, you start down this road, sooner or later you’re going to get there. And after a period of quiescence and failure, here we are. And people are in fact saying, “Well look we have in-vitro fertilization. This is just the next step. How is it so different?” And, step-by-step, we walk down a path to whose final destination we may not wish to go.
Ben Wattenberg: I just made up a list here of things that interfere with, or structurally change, the nature of humanity: antibiotics and vaccines and insulin, organ transplants. If somebody said to you thirty years ago, “We’re going to take the heart valve of a pig and put it in a human being,,” would you not have said “oh my God, yuck. I couldn’t believe the idea that you’d really put a pig’s valve in a human heart.” And yet, here we are, and people walk around with it.
Leon Kass: Well, look, repugnances are interesting things. They don’t settle any moral question but they are at least a sign that we may be crossing a kind of boundary about which crossing we should think before we do it. I think that organ transplantation was a kind of boundary. Medicine didn’t ever cut into one person’s body for the sake of some other person’s body.
Ben Wattenberg: Do you oppose that?
Leon Kass: I don’t oppose that. Of course I don’t oppose that. On the whole, this is a great blessing. But to say that it’s a great blessing doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with some kind of cost and that we’re better off if we’re at least aware of the cost so that we might be able to forestall certain other kinds of things where the cost really outweighs the benefits. The prophetic novel for this whole field, written in 1932, seventy years ago…
Ben Wattenberg: Is Brave New World.
Leon Kass: ...is [Aldous] Huxley’s novel Brave New World. And in this novel, Huxley has foreseen a society that takes all of our humanitarian goals and pushes them to their ultimate realization. Conquest of poverty, of disease, of psychic distress, the elimination of war, the creation of a harmonious society. It’s accomplished by cloning, genetic engineering, scientific education through sleep…sleep education and all kinds of artificial amusements, of a rather trivial sort. And what you’ve got, we’ve eliminated all of the world’s problems only to discover that the price for doing that is that the world is now peopled by creatures of human shape but of very stunted humanity. They don’t read, write, love, govern themselves, there’s no art, there’s no science, there’s no religion, there’s no friendship, there’s no family. And life becomes really entirely mediated. Real life has disappeared. And it’s a revolting world. And Huxley, in effect, says, “You pays your money, you takes your choice.” Either you strive for perfection, but this will be the result, or you live with the kind of imperfect world where people are free but there’s a fair amount of misery that comes with it.
Ben Wattenberg: You mentioned in this last discussion the magic word to which we must repair.
Leon Kass: Please.
Ben Wattenberg: Cloning.
Leon Kass: Cloning.
Ben Wattenberg: Why don’t you explain that, because it gets, I must say to somebody trying to follow it who doesn’t really understand it, you hear about therapeutic cloning and reproducible cloning and stem cells and the President made a big decision about thirty stem lines and…
Leon Kass: Let’s take the stem cell thing up first.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay.
Leon Kass: About four years ago, scientists discovered in early human embryos, embryos five to six days old, when they’re about one hundred and twenty to a hundred to two hundred cells, a little clump of cells, that there are contained in that these cells that are called stem cells. Why are they called stem cells? Because from this stem derive all of the tissues of the body. And the great excitement about these stem cells is that you could, because they are capable of turning into any tissue of the body, if you isolate these cells and grow them in culture and give them instructions with chemicals you can get them to turn into heart muscle tissue if you’d like or nerve tissue if you’d like or liver tissue. So there is a great new field aborning called regenerative medicine, in which various kinds of diseases and degenerations could be dealt with by tissue replacement growing out of stem cells.
It’s too early to tell where the payoff is going to be. There are some people who think it’s going to be with the cells that you get from the embryos. There are some very exciting new findings with cells that have been found in human bone marrow, which until very recently, people thought could only make blood cells, but it’s now been shown that these cells can also make liver and brain and muscle and bone. So we may be able to get these regenerating… these stem cells out of our own bodies.
The moral question with the embryonic stem cell research is as follows. To get the embryonic stem cells you have to take apart embryos. Where do you get the embryos? Up until now, they have been the so-called spare embryos in the in-vitro fertilization clinics. And what the President agreed to last year was federal funding for already existing stem cell lines cultivated from embryos that had long since been destroyed. He would not approve any kind of work that involved the fresh destruction of new embryos, though that work is still permitted to go on in the private sector, and it does.
Now to cloning. In in-vitro fertilization, although artificial means are used, any child that is born is still the product of the union of one egg and one sperm. Although it takes place outside the body it is still in this biological sense, sexual. Right. One egg, one sperm, an embryo, new life, two lineages unite, although, albeit with the help of science and the laboratory. In the case of cloning something radically new happens. In cloning, rather than start with egg and sperm, you start with an egg, you take out the DNA from that egg, you remove the nucleus. Then you fuse that egg, not with a sperm, but with a cell taken from the body of whomever it is you’re trying to clone. This egg now contains DNA, not from the woman who donated the egg, but from the person whose nucleus, whose cell it is. Zap it with a little electricity, presto, it starts to divide. One cell becomes two, two becomes four, four become eight, you get to that same one hundred to two hundred cell thing called the blastocyst and then if you transferred that into a woman’s uterus, it could grow up to become a child. But, and here is the crucial difference, this child, rather than being the product of the chance union of an egg and sperm, would be the virtually identical genetic copy of the donor of the nucleus. Okay. So it would be a genetic twin of someone who’s already alive, someone from a previous generation. Most Americans would like to stop cloning for baby making, ninety percent, eighty-five to ninety percent in the polls.
Ben Wattenberg: They would like to stop something that’s not now being done.
Leon Kass: Well, this Italian physician as we speak claims now to have at least five women carrying human clones, somewhere between eight to twelve weeks [reference to Dr. Severino Antinori]. There’s a lot of skepticism. We’ll find out. But what complicates the efforts to try to stop cloning for baby making is the fact that these little blastocysts, these little five to six day old cloned embryos, are also useful for biomedical research. So up until a certain point, clone the embryo, grow it up to five or six days and then it has two fates. You can either use it for reproductive purposes, so called reproductive cloning or cloning to produce children. Or you could take that little embryo apart, get out it’s stem cells and use it for research. And that is where the controversy now is, whether we should allow the creation of cloned embryos solely for research purposes.
Ben Wattenberg: And you’re against it?
Leon Kass: I am against it.
Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask you this. Just to use the popular parlance, are you pro-choice or pro-life?
Leon Kass: I’m not in favor of reversing the permission to abort. Though the whole activity of abortion sadness me deeply and I regard it as….well…
Ben Wattenberg: You are not in favor of making it illegal for somebody else to abort a fetus.
Leon Kass: That is correct. I mean, and it’s partly because it seems to me that the solution here is not a legal solution but a cultural one. It cannot please anybody who’s thought about this, that we should deal casually with nascent human life. And we pay a price for dealing casually with it.
Ben Wattenberg: You are…I know you from around AEI [American Enterprise Institute]…you are generally a conservative, as opposed to a liberal.
Leon Kass: It depends on what the issue is, Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: I understand. But the conservatives these days, particularly when they look at an issue like environmentalism, where they want to sort of, stop the world I want to get off, and we conservatives say, “Oh, they’re a bunch of Luddites, they don’t want to let progress..” and yet, here, you and a number of other conservatives, are behaving in…and taking positions that your adversaries would view as a Luddite position. As saying, “look we’re not trying to create babies. We’re trying to create a cure for Parkinson’s, a cure for juvenile diabetes”… you could give me a much longer list I’m sure…a cure for Alzheimer’s and so on…
Leon Kass: I understand. By the way, I should say that I speak really here, since I have official responsibility to chair the council, what you’re getting is just Leon’s own views.
Ben Wattenberg: Right.
Leon Kass: I think it would be very difficult to prevent cloning for baby-making once we have wholesale cloning for biomedical research. The embryos will be around. It will be very hard to keep track of them. They can be bought and sold with impunity. They could be implanted under the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship. And if it is implanted the law that would say you can’t have a cloned baby is unenforceable because no one is going to compel a woman carrying a cloned baby to abort, so one of the arguments is called building the fence around the law. You want to prevent cloning for baby-making, a prudent thing to do would be to stop it at the first step. I have to then deal with what I’m paying, what price I’m paying for doing that. I’ll do that in a minute. Second is a moral point, not just the prudent point. I think that it’s one thing for us to be silent on creating embryos for research only in the private sector. It’s another thing for the federal government to say it’s okay to create embryos, not the spare embryos in the in-vitro clinics, all of which were created for reproductive purposes and then became unnecessary, but for us now to cross this next moral boundary and say, nascent human life, ladies and gentleman, is meant to be strip-mined for our benefit. And to have the imprimatur of the federal government on that research and make it a crime to do anything but destroy it, that’s a major step that I think it would be very imprudent for us to cross. Especially, part three, when the so called benefits of cloning for biomedical research and of cloned stem cells is, right now, just a dream. And there are number of reasons for thinking that at least for the time being we are not giving up very much if we had either a moratorium or a ban on the cloning for research. In three or four years we might discover that these adult stem cells, which are rejection proof, transplant rejection proof, each one of us could get our own back, they may be the big payoff. And then you won’t have to collect hundreds of eggs to produce a little embryo, to produce cloned stem cells, to grow up the tissue, etcetera. You wouldn’t have to commodify women’s reproductive tracts in order to do the research in the first place.
Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask you a question. I’ve read some material of yours, where you maintain…I don’t want to misquote you, and I’m sure you won’t let me… that much of the goal of this modern biotechnology is immortality itself, which you are opposed to and think it would be a Pandora’s box, if we could ever find such a box, (smiles) which strikes at a topic many of us are interested in.
Leon Kass: Look, life is good. Life is precious and, if one has been fortunate enough as I’ve been fortunate, fortunate in my choice of parents, in my choice of country and the opportunities that have been offered to me and the blessings of marriage and children and now of grandchildren, anybody who sort of talks about the goodness of mortality must sound like he’s got a screw loose. Life loves to live and it will resist… The mind might think that finitude is good for us, but the blood loves to go around and around and around and there’s not much that the mind is going to tell the body that says, you know what, take a walk. Okay, so I know it’s a counter intuitive argument. And yet, and yet, there are a number of reasons for thinking that certain deep and wonderful and profoundly meaningful things of human life depend upon our knowing that we have not world enough and time, and that there is a limit to this drama. Having a limit to the drama is one of the conditions for taking life seriously and trying to make the most of it. Homer, in The Iliad and The Odyssey, showed us the alternatives. He contrasts the mortals with the immortals…Zeus, Apollo and the like…who, if you look at them, they lived just shallow and frivolous lives. And their amusement depends upon looking and watching what the mortals do, because the mortals are the only ones who do anything that really matters. It’s mortality which makes life matter. The other thing is this. The desire to live immortally for ourselves is really incompatible with the devotion to the next generation. And what the world really needs is, you should excuse me Ben, not eternally you and me but it needs the opportunity for refreshment, the eternal renewal that comes with our making way for those who will replace us.
Ben Wattenberg: You have a commission that advises the President.
Leon Kass: Correct.
Ben Wattenberg: Where do we stand? What’s going to happen?
Leon Kass: Maybe a kind of compromise could be reached, in which we agreed to a permanent ban on cloning for producing children and allow for a moratorium of several years on the cloning for biomedical research. Which would have the advantages of allowing the moral debate to continue, for the science to accumulate the evidence, for us not on the basis of pure speculative benefits, to ride roughshod over the moral opinions of the majority of our countrymen, who don’t want to cross the line and say it’s okay to create embryos solely for research purposes. Just as America is the leader in biotechnology so we have an opportunity to be a leader really in developing the moral guidelines for the proper uses of these technologies. This is a momentous time, more important than the prospects for cloning is the question, can this democratic pluralistic nation find the will to govern itself and to take some partial control over where biotechnology is taking us?
Ben Wattenberg: Okay, Doctor Leon Kass, thank you very much for joining us. And thank you all. Please don’t forget to send us your comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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At Pfizer we’re spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, and the Dodge Jones Foundation.

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