Few voices offering moral guidance in the rapidly advancing field of biotechnology are as influential as the President’s Council on Bioethics. Professing to uphold man’s well-being, the council on April 1 called for regulating the techniques and research leading to test-tube babies, including a prohibition on attempts to conceive a child by any means other than the “union of egg and sperm.” But its professed goal is belied by the council’s moral viewpoint.
In October 2003 the council outlined some of its views — a groundwork for policy recommendations — in a little noted but ominous report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. The report considers the moral propriety of using biotech not simply to cure diseases, but to enhance the lives of the healthy, to perfect man’s body and prolong his life. Purportedly embracing the power of biotechnology, the report’s constant demurrals and misgivings evince a frightening contempt for the value of man’s life.
Unlike paternalistic bureaucrats, who believe we will harm ourselves if left free, the concern of the council is not that that we will abuse biotech, but that it will make our bodies fitter, our memories sharper, our lives longer. Their report portends draconian regulations of biotechnology in the name of protecting us not from biotech’s alleged dangers, but from its potential benefits.
No rational arguments could justify such an absurd viewpoint; the report offers none.
Consider the report’s contrived misgivings over using biotech to prolong the lives of the healthy. Amid the wealth of obvious benefits to man of a longer life, the report conjures up some (supposedly) grave costs. Longer life, it warns, may diminish the richness of our experience, diluting our aspirations and the urgency to act. If we each faced virtually unlimited tomorrows, it asks, would we be moved to pursue our goals today? Among the things we allegedly may put off are marriage and childrearing. But longer life is not immortality (a being guaranteed to live would have no reason to pursue goals). So, as life expectancy has doubled to about 70 years during the last century, people are, if anything, more active in all areas of life.
If you are unwilling to accept the bizarre notion that longer life would be harmful to you, the report wants you to consider the impact on society. One would think that a future in which more able people are alive and healthy for longer, applying themselves to sustaining and improving life, is a future to be embraced. Imagine if a Thomas Edison lived to an age of 180 with undiminished vigor. But in the report’s jaundiced view, though individuals may live longer, society may disintegrate. The old might “think less of preparing their replacements, and the young could see before them only layers of their elders blocking their path, and no great reason to hurry in building families or careers.” What we have to dread, apparently, is that the “succession of generations could be obstructed by a glut of the able.”
If one recognizes that man’s mind — through production and trade — is his means of sustaining life — a “glut of the able” is as much to be feared as a “glut” of health.
That is precisely what the report’s authors evidently do fear. The report decries the possibility that biotech may inflate — and satisfy — our desires for physical and mental improvements. But it is thanks in part to his continually growing desire for improving his lot in life that man has risen so far today — from caves to houses; from hunting to scientific farming; from living at the mercy of uncontrollable pestilence to conquering diseases through medicine. The latest, perhaps most potent, tool in this ascent is biotechnology.
The report grasps at straws to have us believe that man’s attainment of knowledge and mastery over nature will bring him to a hubristic fall. It solemnly cautions that longer life, “far from bringing contentment, . . . might make us increasingly anxious over our health or dominated by the fear of death.”
Implicit in the report is an abhorrence for man’s life on earth and his happiness. Such a moral viewpoint was once held by self-flagellating medieval monks as an article of faith; for the President’s Council — consisting of legal scholars, scientists and ethicists — it is little more than that. Expect the council, therefore, to call for more regulations not only on conceiving test-tube babies, but on advances in biotech that would enable man to extend his lifespan and overcome his physical limitations.
Man urgently needs moral guidance — in biotech as in every aspect of his life. But he needs a rational morality that, in the words of the philosopher Ayn Rand, teaches man “not to suffer and die, but to enjoy [himself] and live.”