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Friday, January 17, 2003

Public Comments

CHAIRMAN KASS: If I neglected the addiction point, it's here in the notes.

Is that all right for the present on this? My list has two people who have asked to make public comments, and if you don't mind, we'll just sit and take them and then adjourn early.

We have Dr. John Hubert, speaking for himself as an individual. Welcome, please.

DR. HUBERT: Thank you.

My name is Dr. John Hubert. I'm a disability retired heart surgeon with a degenerative neurologic disease, and I'm potentially impacted by the embryonic stem cell and cloning debate.

I rise to speak in favor of a total ban on all human cloning.

I wish first to thank the council members for their thoughtful work over the past year, culminating in the publication of their well written report entitled Human Cloning and Human Dignity. It represents an admirable contribution to the debate on this vital issue of public policy.

I enthusiastically support the total ban, which the council has recommended with respect to the issue of cloning to reproduce children. However, I respectfully disagree with the majority recommendation of the council in support of a four year moratorium rather than a permanent ban on cloning for biomedical research.

While the council's report is well balanced, thoughtful, and broad in scope, it contains a major deficiency from a philosophical and public policy perspective, with all due respect. Specifically, its failure to grapple to any substantial degree with the moral significance of the human embryo.

This has allowed both a bioethic of unbridled autonomy, and a utilitarian bioethic or calculus to persist as potentially valid with respect to the issue of cloning for biomedical research, henceforth referred to as CBR.

That is to say the issue of CBR continues to be portrayed as a matter of balancing various potential moral goods which are at times thought to be in conflict, such as the treatment of illness or disease versus the protection of nascent human beings. As such, the process resembles a cost-benefit or benefit-risk equation and analysis and/or a question or individual freedom and/or autonomy more than it does a sincere attempt at ascertaining the truth about the intrinsic fundamental nature of embryonic human beings.

This is true whether they are the product of sexual or asexual reproduction and whether they are called embryos or clonotes. As long as the fundamental nature of the human embryo remains publicly in doubt, the question persists with respect to what can and cannot be done with or to them.

It is necessary, therefore that the council and society at large engage in a philosophically sound discussion of what it means to be human. Such a discussion, in my view must include an exploration of concepts, including the nature of personhood being in kind.

The basic reproductive biology of the human embryo has been comprehensively detailed in the past and was nicely discussed in detail yesterday by Dr. Opitz. It is clear that the biologic product of human sexual reproduction in the clonote or embryo which results from a sexual reproduction is, in fact, a nascent human being in the early stages of development, and it differs from the adult human being only by virtue of degree, not kind.

This is true both from a human biologic, as well as a formal philosophical perspective.

Similarly, with respect to the human embryo, the debate about potentiality versus actuality seeks to separate, in my view, two different fundamentally different capacities, that which in actuality represents an unbroken, complete and internally pre-program developmental process once begun.

As council members George and Gómez-Lobo have written so well, and I quote, "To deny that embryonic human beings deserve full respect and protection is to suppose that not every whole living human being is deserving of full respect. To do that, one must hold that those human beings who deserve full respect deserve it not in virtue of the kind of entity they are, but rather in virtue of some acquired characteristic that some human beings have and others do not and which some human beings have in greater degrees than others."

It is clear from a consideration of comatose, retarded or severely cognitively impaired suffers of Alzheimer's disease that human personhood cannot be conferred on the basis of some externally or otherwise assigned and/or demonstrated attribute to capacity or mental function. I respectfully submit that this dispute over the human personhood of the human embryo arises as a result of a failure to metaphysically ascertain, apprehend, or admit the truth about the fundamental nature of the human embryo, something which can be definitively known by the light of human reason.

Finally, I know of no deductive proof or other philosophically valid argument which has demonstrated the non-personhood of the human embryo without resorting to circular reasoning, a type of tautology begging of the question or appeal to unbridled passion. Logic dictates that what is biologically human is human, indeed, that is, in nature, essence, and person. As such, it would never be human if it were not human already.

We must assign full personhood to the human embryo because it cannot be considered or found to be by research anything other than a full human organism, albeit in a nascent state.

For a cogent philosophical analysis in support of that contention, please see Professor Peter Kreeft's The Unaborted Socrates by Intervarsity Press, 1983.

This means then that the line must be drawn at the one cell zygote, embryo or clonote stage. If we fail to recognize the implications of that reality, we reduce the notion of humanity, humanness or human personhood to nothing more than the totalitarian whim, which can be all too conveniently altered whenever the perceived needs of the majority demand it. Ample historical precedent has established that reality.

I strongly urge the council to proceed with a frank and candid discussion and inquiry into the complete moral status of the human embryo. I thank President Bush for his leadership, as well as that of Dr. Kass and all of the members of this council for their very meritorious service.

Thank you.

CHAIRMAN KASS: Thank you very much, Dr. Hubert.

The second pubic commentator is Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

MR. DOERFLINGER: Dr. Kass, members of the council, I, again, find myself provoked to speak with the council largely by the fact that no one else seems so eager to. I think you are all very worthy of discussing things with and very intelligent.

I did think also that it was worth having some comments on Dr. Opitz's embryology presentation yesterday, and I'd like to offer to the council's attention a recent article from the journal Nature, "Your Destiny from Day One," that concisely confirms much of what his presentation outlined, that is, to a much greater degree than in past years modern embryology sees development from the very beginning as a continuum, that even the very early embryo has spatial orientation, has the bases for the new body plan of the human being, and even has tentative differentiation, a differentiation that is necessarily tentative because of all the hardships and assaults that can afflict human life in its earlier stages, requiring the embryo to have the property to compensate or, as Dr. Opitz said, reorientate or I forget now the word. I'm sorry.

No, that's not the word I was looking for, but thank you.

(He later volunteered that it was "re-equilibrate.")

His presentation also dramatized how much more vulnerable to genetic and environmental insults the early human is than us thick-skinned adults. I would hope that that would not be used as an argument for the less than human characteristic of that entity.

One could make, I suppose, a Darwinian argument that the strongest survive and the weak have less status. That argument limps quite a bit in the case of the human continuum because we thick skinned adults are only here because we were once at that much more vulnerable stage and were cared for reasonably well by our mothers.

It may well be that characteristics such as nurture, mutual dependency, and even unconditional love are of enormous value in the evolutionary scale, and I think the voice of the mother in Dr. Opitz's story, the mother who looked upon the distorted body of her second trimester child, a body that many of us would shrink from with revulsion, and mourned that child and gave him a name is the voice of a civilized and decent humanity that we would dismiss at our great peril.

I thought I saw in the discussion period of Dr. Opitz's talk the beginnings of an argument that the high natural embryo loss rate provides a kind of moral warrant for destroying embryos deliberately. I was glad to see Dr. Opitz decline the invitation to assert that it is the normal and natural fate of genetically normal embryos simply to die. He said that the high loss rate in the early stages is more often than not due to detectable gross abnormalities, and that when we have not detected that abnormality, it may simply be we don't know it yet.

But I want to draw attention to three problems. One is simply the logical fallacy that because something happens in nature we can do it deliberately. The eruption of Mount St. Helen's provides no warrant for dropping the big one on Seattle. Human ethics, I think, almost universally rejected the argument of the researchers at the Willowbrook Home that they could deliberately infect retarded children with hepatitis because many of them would develop it anyway, and current NIH regulations for many years rejected the idea that particularly harmful research can be done on the unborn solely because they may miscarry or even be deliberately aborted anyway.

I think, secondly, that it might be difficult or impossible to note what a natural loss rate would be. All of the studies done of early loss were done in our modern industrialized society awash in environmental insults ranging from coffee, tobacco and alcohol to environmental and industrial pollution, low level radiation, and electromagnetic waves.

Dr. Rowley rightly pointed to the excellent example of neural tube defects and folate. Perhaps a natural diet of our ancestors included a great many green, leafy vegetables that had a high folate content.

Nowadays France has a lower rate of spina bifida than England or Ireland because the French eat salads. Perhaps as the French become addicted to the "Grand Mac," like the rest of us, the natural loss rate of embryos would go higher, but it's very difficult to figure out what a natural loss rate would be or how one would study it because I don't think there's any natural world left anymore that we could find and study.

Finally, I think the argument that any embryo that would die soon anyway is subject to assault is a fairly disturbing argument because, of course, we will all die soon anyway, and these are simply matters of degree.

I'm haunted, in fact, by the suspicion that I may have discovered the reason why some scientists and utilitarian ethicists are so obsessed with giving us immortality on earth, because by their logic, I suspect only if we are immortal will we have a rationally definitive argument why we can't all murder each other because, after all, only if we were immortal would murder produce a net loss of lives that would not otherwise be lost naturally.

I don't think the council should accept that argument uncritically.

Thank you.

CHAIRMAN KASS: Thank you very much.

Anybody have any last words?

(No response.)

CHAIRMAN KASS: If not, safe journeys home.

Oh, yeah, I have one last word. I like very much the retrieval of suggestions for things to do from members often accompanied the staff should, but if we might, we'd like to come back to some of you at the very least if not for pieces of writing of your own on the topics that you think are important, but try to help direct us to the kinds of people with the kind of expertise that we could bring before the council to, in fact, carry out your suggestions of what belongs, for example, in this project. So be prepared to hear from us or if you have some suggestions already, please send them in so that we can get started and check them out.

Thank you very much. A very good meeting, and godspeed and safe journey.

(Whereupon, at 11:48 a.m., the meeting in the above-entitled matter was concluded.)

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