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Jun 3 2008
You've GOT to read this: Bioethics Bush Style

My wife Laura found this shocking article about the President's Council on Bioethics and the report they just released on Human Dignity.

For more information, you should read this article by Steven Pinker in the New Republic. But, let me summarize a few of the highlights below.

As Pinker points out, "dignity" has not previously been considered to be a major topic in questions of bioethics. Rather, personal autonomy has been considered the key. The idea is that people need to be given the information to make good choices, and the freedom to make choices so long as they do not harm anyone. Another key idea of bioethics (and perhaps also encoded in the American ideal of the freedom of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") is that increasing the health and lifespan of people is GOOD and that decreasing their health or shortening their life is bad.

However, unsatisfied with these goals, the President's Council on Bioethics (formed in 2001) has introduced the concept of "dignity" as a new key. Just to give you an idea of how absolutely crazy this can get, consider the following quote from the Council's chair Leon Kass who has serious concerns about ice cream cones:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. ... Eating on the street--even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat--displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ... Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ... This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

But, don't let the frivolity of that quote convince you that this council is not worth thinking about. Their emphasis on religious fundamentalism and their disagreement with the idea that "increasing health is good" are serious threats.

As Pinker explains, the Council's report is a strange document from a governmental body in that it frequently assumes the literal truth of the Christian Bible (including the idea that some of the early patriarchs lived to be 900 years old), suggests that respect for life comes only from the Bible (which says what about India and China?), and even has trouble distinguishing Greek myths from reality (since it uses the immoral behavior of the Greek gods as an explanation for why lengthening life is not desirable).

But, although I do think this breach of the separation of church and state is a problem, it is nothing compared to the problem posed by the council's horrific attitude about health! Perhaps inspired by their idea that God determines who is healthy and who is not, the council seems to be opposed to technologies which can enhance or lengthen life! Apparently, it is an affront to human dignity to try to eliminate diseases.

I am reminded of those who complained that Mother Teresa -- as well intentioned as she may have been -- did not help the people in her care as much as she could have since she did not believe that her goal was to make them happy, healthy, or comfortable but rather to save their souls so that they could get into heaven. I can see that this would make sense to someone who really believes in the Christian afterlife and think she had every right to do that. (Though, I personally have trouble thinking of her as a "hero".)

In a similar way, I think that if Kass feels that ice cream licking and medical technologies are a huge threat, he should be free to run an NGO that seeks to close all of the ice cream shops and hospitals so that we can eat in private and die before we're 40 years old the way God intended us to. (Sorry for the sarcasm there.) But I really do not think it is the place of our government to decide these sorts of things for us.

What do you think?

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