LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE DEFENSE OF DIGNITY: THE CHALLENGE FOR BIOETHICS

by Leon R. Kass, M.D.

Encounter Books, 2002

313 pages, $26.95

To order: (800) 786-3839 or

www.encounterbooks.com

It's 2003. Do you know where your bioethics are? We've created babies in test tubes, opened egg and sperm banks, put millions of women on birth control and as many kids on chemicals. Even the ads in college newspapers offering cash-strapped college girls thousands of dollars for their eggs are fast becoming old news. Now there is embryonic stem-cell research, organ commerce, genetic engineering, assisted suicide and euthanasia. And, of course, cloning.

Thank God for Leon Kass, the University of Chicago professor tapped by President Bush to head the Presidential Council on Bioethics — a light in these murky waters. “[H]uman nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and neuro psychic ‘enhancement,’ for wholesale design,” he writes in this, his latest book. “In leading laboratories, academic and industrial, new creators are confidently amassing their powers, while on the street their evangelists are zealously prophesying a posthuman future.”

That “brave new world” Aldous Huxley saw coming down the pike in 1932 is all too real today, Kass warns in colorful metaphor: “In case you haven't noticed, the train has already left the station and is gathering speed, although there appear to be no human hands on the throttle.”

Yet Kass, a medical doctor and one of the most eloquent voices today on issues of life and death — no foe of technology and progress — does not simply stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” On the contrary. He has been a highly visible and vocal proponent of advancement in the health sciences. It's just that he's adamant about ensuring that science works with human dignity rather than against it.

Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity is based, in part, on a number of essays he's written over the last few years. Together, the writings comprise a guide for anyone affecting, or affected by, bioethical decisions. They're also useful for regular folks concerned about some of the directions in which science wants to take us.

This book, along with the President's Council on Bioethics’ final report, now available in book form (published last October by Public Affairs as Human Cloning and Human Dignity) are both must-reads on the road to realizing the gravity of the life-and-death moment we find ourselves in. Despite the great weight of the philosophical, political, theological and medical considerations laid out in these works, the reading is readily accessible to the layperson.

For those who support the thrust of Kass’ mission, know that it is not too late to help it along — yet. “[O]ur technologies of bio-psycho-engineering are still in their infancy,” he writes, “and in ways that make all too clear what they might look like in their full maturity.”

The time to get these things right is now. Which is why having access to the thought of Leon Kass is such a blessing.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com).