Interdisciplinary conference explores legal and ethical implications of biotechnology

To some, today’s biotechnology is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it raises hopes for medical breakthroughs and enhancements that can improve the human condition. On the other, it instills a profound uneasiness about a world of designer children and genetic manipulation.

For most, provocative questions abound: Should society’s rapidly expanding prowess in biotechnology be used only to cure disease, as some argue, or also to enhance our bodies and minds? Does our growing ability to choose the gender and “cherry pick” the desired traits of our children expand human choice? Or does it raise the specter of a new eugenics?

In March, a panel of luminaries in law and ethics gathered at Harvard Law School to explore these and other compelling legal and ethical issues surrounding contemporary biotechnology. A public panel discussion, “Re-engineering Human Biology: What Should Be the Legal and Ethical Limits?” was part of a conference sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Petrie- Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, in collaboration with the Harvard University Program in Ethics and Health and HSCI’s Ethics and Public Policy Program.

Moderated by Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, the panel included legal theorist Professor Ronald M. Dworkin, of New York University School of Law and University College, London; Richard Posner, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and the University of Chicago; Leon R. Kass, of the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Chicago, and former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics; and Michael J. Sandel, DPhil, head of HSCI’s Program in Ethics and Public Policy and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government.

“The excitement over the prospect of genetic engineering comes from the sense that this is a most fundamental challenge to the chance/choice divide,” said Dworkin, a proponent of genetic enhancement, to the overflow audience. “To treat the ‘given’ as given would be to deny what’s best in human nature.” Dworkin cited antibiotics and public education as examples of improvements that eliminated former “givens.”

While Posner agreed with Dworkin, Kass and Sandel both argued against the use of genetic engineering. “The tendency to push back the frontier of the given can actually undermine or damage important human goods,” stated Sandel, author of the recently published book “The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.”

“As we saw in this discussion, stem cell research touches on many different areas,” says HSCI Executive Director Brock C. Reeve. “This event at Harvard Law School is just one example of how HSCI’s interdisciplinary collaboration with the other schools and institutions of Harvard can bring the power of leading thinkers from diverse fields to the multiple aspects of stem cell science.”