Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Beyond Human (President' Council on Bioethics).

In his recent article for Slate, Carl Elliott notes:
Leon Kass, the University of Chicago social theorist and bioethicist, has had the misfortune to chair the President's Council on Bioethics under a man who inspires more revulsion among academics than any president since Richard Nixon. Last week, 170 academic bioethicists sent a petition to President Bush protesting the dismissal of two members of the council, the cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and the ethicist William May. . . . Blackburn had told the press she was dismissed because she clashed with Kass, and ethicists have been quick to assume that the two members were dismissed for ideological reasons. Perhaps it is a sign of our strange, politically charged times that the composition of the council can generate protests and petitions from bioethicists while its actual work has been largely ignored.

This is a shame. The council, which was formed in 2001 to advise the president on ethical issues surrounding medicine and biotechnology, has recently published the findings of a two-year project in a report titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. As the title suggests, the report concerns the use of drugs and surgery that not only make sick people well but make well people better than well. Americans take Paxil for shyness, Provigil for sleepiness, Adderall for poor concentration, Ativan for anxiety, Humatrope for short stature, Propecia for baldness, Xenical for obesity, beta blockers for stage fright, designer steroids for poor athletic performance, and Viagra for poor sexual performance—and that's not even counting the possible future technologies on the table, from memory managers to genetic enhancement to longevity drugs. Beyond Therapy asks not whether it is right or wrong to use such technologies, but rather, what are the implications of these technologies, what will they mean for us "as individuals, as members of American society, and as human beings eager to live well in an age of biotechnology"? . . . .

The truly striking thing about Beyond Therapy is how just radically at odds it is with mainstream American culture, right and left alike. The report is skeptical of America's faith in technology, worried about America's radical individualism, alarmed at the transformation of medicine from a profession into a business, and deeply concerned about the role of the market in driving the demand for new medical technologies. Beyond Therapy may not please many bioethicists, but neither will it please the libertarian or the business-conservative wings of the Republican Party. When was the last time you heard a Republican complain, as the council does, that the pharmaceutical industry is expanding diagnostic categories as a way of selling drugs or express concern that it "can manufacture desire as readily as it can manufacture pills"? As much as it pains me to admit that anything worthwhile could come from a council appointed by the Bush administration, Beyond Therapy is a remarkable document: gracefully written, thoroughly researched, ideologically balanced, and philosophically astute. It will be a benchmark for all future work on the topic.
Elliott has a valid point. It is hard to pidgeonhole the Commission and its work. As I wrote the other day about Being Human (now out of print because of extremely high demand and copyright limitations that prevent the Council from ordering more copies), the Commission's work can be ambitious and subtle.
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:31 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter