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Ethical Dilemma

When solutions to biological quandaries stem from moral certitudes instead of give-and-take debate, public discourse suffers.

On a bitterly cold January morning in Washington, D.C., the ninth meeting of the President�s Council on Bioethics comes to order. Presiding is the council�s chairman, Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D., on sabbatical from his faculty position at the University of Chicago. After acknowledging the designated federal officer whose presence is required to legitimize the meeting, Dr. Kass sets the agenda for the day. It includes discussion of two documents: a council working paper on the ethical aspects of controlling the sex of children and a draft of a paper written by Dr. Kass on the perils of biotechnology�s march toward improving human health. Leading the agenda is a presentation on the biology of human embryonic development by John Marius Opitz, M.D., a professor of pediatrics, genetics, and obstetrics at the University of Utah.

Those giving expert testimony before a presidential council are carefully chosen, and Dr. Opitz is no exception. The avuncular 68-year-old is an internationally recognized authority on human genetics, having been among the first physician-scientists to correlate groupings of developmental anomalies with heredity. His name is associated with the understanding of no fewer than ten genetic syndromes, including pseudohermaphroditism, severe dwarfism, and retardation. For nearly 30 years, he has served as the editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Genetics. Before introducing Dr. Opitz, Dr. Kass instructs the council that the lecture is central to their deliberations on the moral status of the human embryo, which he calls “this entity”:

[W]e . . . owe it to ourselves, and, again, to those who would read what we write, to . . . speak as accurately and as fully as we can about this entity . . . whose true nature is so much in dispute and which is, in fact, somewhat mysterious.

. . . I remind you that the house rules this morning are that we are going to try to learn what we can about the biology. Certain kinds of biophilosophical questions might be in order, but I will try and preside in order to keep this from turning into an opportunity to score some points in the moral debate about the so-called moral status of embryonic life.1