Dr. Leon Kass presents Siegel Memorial Lecture

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Kass during Siegel LectureLeon Kass, chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics and Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago, delivered the second annual Rabbi Seymour Siegel Memorial Lecture in Ethics at the Law School on Feb. 4.

With repeated references to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — a 1932 novel that portrays a future humanity descending into soulless mediocrity through genetic manipulation and other applications of biological sciences — Kass offered a scorching indictment of all efforts to clone human beings. In a speech titled “Preventing a Brave New World: Why We Should Ban Human Cloning,” Kass advocated for both national and international regulations to prevent such cloning.

“I exaggerate somewhat, but in the direction of truth,” Kass said. “We are compelled to decide nothing less than whether human procreation is going to remain human, whether children are going to be made to order rather than begotten, and whether we wish to say ‘yes’ in principle to the road that leads to the dehumanized hell of Brave New World.

“This afternoon I want to begin to persuade you, first, that cloning is a serious evil, both in itself and in what it leads to,” he continued. “And second, that we ought to try to stop it by legislative prohibition.”

Kass said most people who are polled, formally and informally, find the prospect of human cloning repugnant, which in itself should serve as a warning against the practice. Yet he also offered four specific objections to cloning.

Leon Kass presents the Siegel Memorial Lecture on Feb. 4.
  • Human cloning involves unethical experiments. Most cloning experiments result in fetal deaths or the birth of deformed infants. “Nearly all scientists agree that attempts to clone a human being carry grave risks of producing unhealthy and disabled children,” he said. “Shall we just discard the ones that do not meet expectations?”

  • It threatens identity and individuality. A clone would be like a twin to its parent/sibling creator, and likely would be burdened with expectations of a life already lived rather than a new life yet to come. “Like all the more precise eugenic manipulations that will follow in its wake, cloning is thus inherently despotic, for it seeks to make one’s children after one’s own image (or an image of one’s choosing) and their future according to one’s will,” Kass said.

  • Cloning would transform the making of a human being into the building of a manufactured product. This creates an unequal relationship between parent and clone. “As with any product of our making, no matter how excellent, the artificer stands above it, not as an equal but as a superior, transcending it by his will and creative prowess,” he said.

  • Parents of clones likely would have an unreasonable set of expectations for their children. If created from someone gifted, such as a famous athlete, the clone would live his entire life with comparisons to the person from whom genetic material was harvested. “True, his nurture and circumstance will be different; genotype is not exactly a destiny,” Kass said. “But one must also expect parental efforts to shape this new life after the original, or at least to view the child with the original version always firmly in mind. For why else would they clone from the star basketball player, mathematician, and beauty queen — or even dear old Dad — in the first place?”

Kass voiced opposition to cloning for genetic research as well, noting that it would be impossible to control the use of cloned embryos once they are produced. “The embryo created by cloning would be the first human embryo to have its genetic identity selected in advance, the first embryo whose makeup is not the unpredictable result of uniting sperm and egg,” he said. “It is precisely this genetic control that makes cloned embryos appealing and useful. But we should not be deceived: saying yes to creating cloned embryos, even for research, means saying yes, at least in principle, to an ever-expanding genetic mastery of one generation over the next.”

His solution to the problems presented by cloning is simple in theory: ban the practice. Kass advocates both a national and international ban on human cloning in all forms. Bans might occasionally be violated, of course, but they would curtail the practice.

“Such a ban on clonal baby-making will not harm the progress of basic genetic science and technology,” he said. “On the contrary, it will reassure the public that scientists are happy to proceed without violating deep ethical norms and intuitions of the human community.”

Kass acknowledged that a ban someday could be proven unenforceable or wrong. If that’s the case, it later could be reversed. But a ban of the practice now would require proponents to convincingly prove their case before it could be overturned. “Surely it is only for such a compelling case, yet to be made or even imagined, that we should wish to risk this major departure — or any other major departure — in human procreation,” he said.

Kass earned BS and MD degrees at the University of Chicago in 1958 and 1962 and a PhD in biochemistry at Harvard University in 1967. Afterwards he researched molecular biology at the National Institutes of Health, while serving in the United States Public Health Service. From 1970-72, Kass served as executive secretary of the Committee on the Life Sciences and Social Policy of the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences, whose report, Assessing Biomedical Technologies, provided one of the first overviews of the emerging moral and social questions posed by biomedical advance.

Patricia Festin
Patricia Festin, '04, poses a question to Leon Kass after the lecture.

He taught at St. John’s College in Annapolis and served as Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. Research Professor in Bioethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. He then returned to the University of Chicago, where he has been an award-winning teacher since 1976. Kass is a founding fellow and board member of the Hastings Center (the nation’s first bioethics research center); a senior fellow of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics; and a senior fellow and associate director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy.

His articles and books include: Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs; The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature; The Ethics of Human Cloning (with James Q. Wilson); Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (with Amy A. Kass); and Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics.

He recently completed a book offering a wisdom-seeking account of the book of Genesis. His essays in biomedical ethics have dealt with issues raised by in vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic screening and genetic technology, organ transplantation, aging research, euthanasia and assisted suicide, and the moral nature of the medical profession. His first article on cloning, “Making Babies: The New Biology and the ’ Old’ Morality” was published in 1972 in The Public Interest; his most recent one, “Preventing a Brave New World: Why We Must Ban Human Cloning Now,” appeared in the May 21, 2001 issue of The New Republic.

The Siegel lecture grew from an annual moot court competition established in 1989 by Duke Law alumnus and Senior Lecturing Fellow Allen Siegel ’60, to honor his brother, Rabbi Siegel. Rabbi Siegel, who died in 1988, was a noted scholar in the areas of ethics and theology. The lecture series is made possible by support from Allen Siegel.