Leon Kass, President's Council on Bioethics A conversation with Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics, on alternatives to producing stem cells from living human embryos.
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Leon Kass, President's Council on Bioethics

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Leon Kass, President's Council on Bioethics

Leon Kass, President's Council on Bioethics

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. And for the rest of the hour, we're going to be continuing our talk about embryonic stem-cell research. Last month a committee convened by the National Academies released a set of ethical guidelines for human embryonic stem-cell research, guidelines that would cover research using embryos left over from fertility treatments, created from therapeutic cloning or from eggs and sperm donated to create embryos. This month the President's Council on Bioethics released a report suggesting approaches that scientists should explore as alternatives--alternatives to using living human embryos to generate the stem cells. The report is intended to address the controversy that surrounds this research which requires the destruction of very early-stage human embryos to extract the stem cells. And so for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about this report, the ethics of stem-cell research with the president's top bioethics adviser. And if you'd like to get in on the conversation, our number is 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guest. Dr. Leon Kass is the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, appointed in 2001 by President Bush. He's the Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Addie Clark Harding professor in The College and the Committee on Social Thought of the University of Chicago in Illinois. Dr. Kass has been engaged for more than 30 years with ethical and philosophical issues raised by biomedical advances. From 1970 to '72, Dr. Kass served as executive secretary of the Committee on the Life Sciences and Social Policy of the National Research Council--that's the National Academy of Sciences--whose report assessing biomedical technologies provided one of the first overviews of the moral and social questions posed by biomedical advances. Dr. Kass joins us today from the University of Chicago campus.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LEON KASS (Chairman, President's Council on Bioethics): Welcome to you, Ira. Nice to talk to you.

FLATOW: Thank you. I mean, I'm happy to have you on the program because you've spent virtually, I guess, all of your professional life studying bioethics issues, and it's good to have this opportunity to sort of pick your brain on some of them as a bioethicist.

Dr. KASS: Good, and it'll also give me a chance to perhaps correct some of the misimpressions...

FLATOW: Good.

Dr. KASS: ...that fly around the work of the council...

FLATOW: Good.

Dr. KASS: ...and my own views in particular, so fire away.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask you about somewhere--there was a teleconference, a press conference last--a few weeks ago after the release of the council's white paper, and let me just go right to some of the quotes you have there and we can talk about things that you said.

Dr. KASS: Please.

FLATOW: You say, `This is the first national bioethics council that is, in fact, ethically heterogeneous. The previous ones may have had one token pro-life member. We've got half a dozen. This is much more representative of the nation as a whole.' Would you count yourself among those pro-life members?

Dr. KASS: I don't count myself among those pro-life members. I am sympathetic to their concerns, and I think that their concerns are vital not only to them but to all of us. But I do not count myself in that number.

FLATOW: How would you characterize yourself, then?

Dr. KASS: Oh, it's hard to do on one leg. With respect to this vexed question of the moral status of the early human embryo, I would say I'm an agnostic. I do not regard the early-stage human embryo as the moral equivalent of a newborn child, but I also am not confident that this moral intuition of mine is correct and that the burden of agnosticism, when--I mean, one has to also acknowledge on biological rather than religious grounds that a five-day-old blastocyst is exactly what a human being looks like at that stage of development. You and I were at that stage. If we had been desegregated at that point, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So I don't want to treat nascent human life at any stage with less respect than it might deserve, and therefore, my attitude is one of caution. But it's not because I'm confident one way or the other about the moral status of the embryo. It is a mystery to me.

FLATOW: The president has equated human life with the early-stage blastocyte--as being equal. Would you agree with that?

Dr. KASS: Would I agree that that's his view?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KASS: That's certainly what he said.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KASS: And I think one could make an argument that in the face of ignorance, that ought to be our presumption, that we--while no society can afford to be cavalier about the treatment of human suffering, no society can afford to be casual about how it treats nascent human life, whether it's five days old or 10 days old or a hundred days old. So...

FLATOW: Right. Or nine months old.

Dr. KASS: Or nine months old. Right. So--and one should understand that this argument that we've been having over the last several years about embryonic stem-cell research and the status of embryos is just the tip of the iceberg of the kinds of arguments of this sort that we will have. So it's going to turn our that it's going to be far more useful to have, say, differentiated tissues grown in utero than it will be to have just stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are hard to control; much better to get pancreatic tissue from a fetus grown later. And if the utilitarian argument which says, `Look, do whatever you can to cure disease'--and by the way, there's a fair amount of hype about how soon that those cures are coming, but then we will be establishing the principle that all kinds of beginnings of human life can rightfully be regarded as raw material for our use. And I think that, never mind what it does to the embryos, I'm also concerned about what it does to a society that loses its high regard for the mystery of human beginnings.

FLATOW: Well, you say, if there was a way--and I'll quote from that same news conference, "If there is a way to go forward for the scientists to proceed with the political and moral blessings of the community as a whole, how much better wouldn't that be for science?"

Dr. KASS: Well, this is, I think, the heart of not only my concern but the concern of the council as a whole. This council has really twin goals in mind: the advancement of biomedical science to increase knowledge and to provide cures for disease and relief of suffering and also at the same time to do so in a way that uphold the moral norms of our community. Some of those moral norms are more universally held; others are in contest. But ideally, it would be best if we could find a way that the science could proceed without ethical controversy, in morally non-problematic ways and, more importantly or equally importantly, in a way that doesn't fracture the polity and leave with some political solution that requires one side to lose, leave lots of our fellow citizens alienated. And that's...

FLATOW: But you can never convince everybody of--I mean, if you're going to try to satisfy everyone, you'll never get...

Dr. KASS: Well...

FLATOW: ...a hundred percent agreement on anything.

Dr. KASS: Well...

FLATOW: And, in fact, there are polls out the last few months. There's a Times/SRBI poll that shows 50 percent of Americans think the Californians who voted for the fund voted--that would be the right way to go with embryonic stem-cell research. An ABC News/Washington Post poll: 63 percent said yes to `Do support or oppose embryonic stem-cell research?' Sixty-three percent said they support it. CBS News poll showed that as embryonic stem-cell research, 58 percent of all approved it. That includes 50 percent of Democrats--65 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Independents. A Gallup Poll...

Dr. KASS: Ira...

FLATOW: I could go on.

Dr. KASS: Yeah, no, you said...

FLATOW: So if you say there's a way to--you know, in your statement, you wish that, you know, there's a way of getting a consensus. There seems to be a consensus on it.

Dr. KASS: No. Look, even 60/40 is not a consensus. Not--let me...

FLATOW: Well, when the president says 3 percent of--he got a 3 percent majority when he won. That was an overwhelming, you know...

Dr. KASS: Ira, we're not going to argue electoral politics, Ira. Look, you and I both know that how you frame the questions in the poll will determine the answers you get. What the Koreans have done, by the way, with American participation--that's not widely touted, but what they've done is to create nascent human life solely for the purposes of research. If you ask the question: Do you favor creating human embryos solely for the purposes of research, you would get a very different answer to the question. And I've seen polls that go the other way, so let's not argue from the polls.

Let's take the tack that the council has taken in this last report. We think that--I mean, there is obviously a moral question here. Some people don't see it as a moral issue; some see it--a moral question. Others see it vehemently as a moral question. If there would be technological and scientific methods to derive stem cells that are equally pluripotent--that is to say functionally identical to the embryonic stem cells--and as genetically stable in culture, then it shouldn't matter that they came from living--scientists shouldn't insist that they should get them from living embryos. What they should want are pluripotent, stable, long-lived, genetically stable stem-cell lines. And the council, therefore, was very interested in proposals now afloat in the scientific community that would provide alternative methods to get exactly the same kind of stem cells that now can be had only by destroying embryos and to do so without needing to destroy embryos. And for that kind of proposal, if it works scientifically, I would think you would get an overwhelming consensus. I think you would have morally unproblematic ways to let this research go forward, and morally serious and public-spirited people should stand up and cheer at the prospect.

FLATOW: But the scientists who do the research on your committee did not agree there was a way of doing that.

Dr. KASS: Well, it's always interesting to me. Science usually proceeds not by a priori speculation but by saying, `Let's try it and see.' And one very interesting thing--and I'm glad to bring this to your listeners. Since this report went to press, which is--we released this on the 12th of May, just a couple of weeks ago--since that report went to press, there have been several new reports that show that at least one of the alternative methods in our report--I'd like to talk with you about that--may not only be the ethically most unproblematic--in fact, there are no moral objections to it at all--but it looks as if researchers in Australia and the United States may be closing in on success. And if I might, I'd take a minute to describe this.

FLATOW: Sure.

Dr. KASS: The fourth of the proposals is to try to get somatic cells, the cells from the body, to reverse the process by which they were differentiated from primordial stem cells. In other words, all the cells in the body come from cells which are originally capable of becoming anything, but the DNA in those cells is exactly the same. The only difference is which instruments are playing at this particular part of the symphony. If you could get this process to be reversed, if you could turn a somatic cell back into a primordial pluripotent stem cell, then you would have stem cells starting from adults. You would have stem cells from the person with any disease you'd like to study. You would have personalized stem cells available for return cell therapy without the possibility of immune rejection.

And lo and behold, there have been reports out of Australia in mice, and just last week in England, a reports by Dr. Verlinsky and his group here in Chicago--this is not yet published, but it was announced at a scientific meeting--that they've grown 10 human stem-cell lines, embryonic stem-cell lines. How? By fusing body cells from an adult with the existing stem-cell lines, human stem-cell lines. And it turns out they get stem cells, but with the genetic properties of the donor cell from the adult. In other words, it's the exact same process of cloning, but without the need of eggs, without having to create embryos. And it looks as if we might have a way of getting pluripotent human stem cells of a great variety of genetic types, exactly what the scientists want.

FLATOW: Has this been published in...

Dr. KASS: It's been in the newspapers. It was...

FLATOW: Well, no, I don't mean newspapers. Has it been published in peer-review journals...

Dr. KASS: No...

FLATOW: ...where scientists who do the work can look at it?

Dr. KASS: No, Dr. Verlinsky hasn't published this yet, but he presented this at an international meeting on preimplantation genetic diagnosis...

FLATOW: Interesting.

Dr. KASS: ...a meeting where--yeah. And...

FLATOW: It's--'cause none of the researchers we have talked to--and we've been following this for years--knows of any work...

Dr. KASS: Well...

FLATOW: ...that actually produces results like that.

Dr. KASS: Well--and the Australian group produced similar things in the mouse by fusion with stem cells. So I think one should--these are signs that there might be real promise here, and lots of people are interested if only because if they found a morally unproblematic way for doing this, that would really loosen up the federal funds.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking with Dr. Leon Kass this hour, TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Let me talk as an ethicist about something--pick your brain on a little different part of the issue. Let's talk about the embryos that are being produced in in vitro fertilization. And to use your number that you mentioned at he news conference, 400,000 of them are frozen, left over in in vitro fertilization; many hundreds of thousands might be thrown out. You think I'm going to go with this question one direction; I'm going to go in another direction. If people believe, if people and possibly the six members, the half a dozen members on your committee that you mentioned, possibly yourself, that these embryos are equivalent to human beings, how can you throw them out? How can you destroy a human life and allow them--why is there no moral outrage? And I ask you as an ethicist, if you really believe that these are human beings, how do we allow them to die needlessly? Why don't we set up a way that these embryos are going to be kept alive forever? There was an outrage over Terri Schiavo when we wanted to take away her feeding tube. This was one person. You're talking about taking away the feeding, so to speaking, feeding tube of hundreds of thousands of human lives here. Why is there no moral--why isn't your committee saying, `How can we allow this to happen? Why don't we set up a--why doesn't the president say, ethically, morally, we cannot allow any of these to be thrown out; these are human lives'?

Dr. KASS: Well, I don't know why the people who regard those as the moral equivalent of a child are not outraged. If anything, it bespeaks not so much their hypocrisy but perhaps their moderation. I don't know; you'd have to ask them. These embryos are, in fact--every one of them has been created in the expectation that just this particular embryo might be the long longed-for child by the parents.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KASS: They remain--hold on. They remain in some ways the nascent potential offspring of those parents in freezers. And the question is--and you probably know that there are groups around that favor embryo adoption. And the president, in fact, appeared with several babies that had been produced by exactly this process. But I think that it's a sad thing that one has gone the route of overproduction. I look forward to the time when we perfect the now-developing techniques of freezing oocytes so that we will not have to...

FLATOW: Well, let me interrupt because...

Dr. KASS: Please.

FLATOW: ...I have my own view of why this is not happening. I mean, and I think if people view these as human lives, they should be sending the troops in to save these babies, these embryos. I think it's one thing to...

Dr. KASS: Well, do you think they should be sending the troops in to bomb the abortion clinics, too?

FLATOW: Well, no, I don't. I don't advocate any of these things. I don't advocate any of these things...

Dr. KASS: OK.

FLATOW: ...but I'm just saying, there's a difference between the intellectual and the emotional here. I think people intellectually or emotionally have different views about these blastocytes. And if they really viewed them as human beings and as really--they would be outraged over allowing them to be destroyed. But I don't really think they view it that way because they're not acting; their actions are not speaking.

Dr. KASS: I--look, that might be right for some. I think that--I have raised the argument you've raised with me myself in conversations with my pro-life friends as part of an argument to test the intuition that what you have at a five-day stage is the moral equivalent of a child. But I don't think you can infer from this behavior that--look, I mean, it's very hard on the basis of visual perception...

FLATOW: Dr. Kass...

Dr. KASS: ...to relate to an embryo...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KASS: ...you can't see and treat it as a child.

FLATOW: Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm sorry to interrupt, Dr. Kass. We have to take a break. Don't go away. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

My guest this hour is Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and is also at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

And when I rudely interrupted Dr. Kass, I was asking him about what seems to me to be the duplicity of views here where if people really viewed embryos, these frozen embryos as being alive and really human, they would be taking care of them better. They might set up permanent repositories for them. I don't mean, you know--I certainly don't mean going in and taking them out of these places. But we would have legislation and national health care for these embryos to take care of them because they are living human beings. We'd no rather--if you really believed that, why would you allow them to die in the first place? And Dr. Kass was trying to...

Dr. KASS: Well, look, this is, I think, in a way, a deflection of the question.

FLATOW: I don't think...

Dr. KASS: You really have to ask the people who have that particular view. As your first speaker, first guest pointed out, lots of embryos die in the process of natural reproduction. There are miscarriages even before there is a diagnosis of pregnancy. To engage in the process of trying to produce a child means tacitly saying yes to the fact that there is going to be death and loss. And I don't think people run in there to try to do something about embryos that are still, as long as they're in freezers, the potential children belonging to somebody else. You do not know their fate. And I think what we really ought to be talking about is how we can get this research to go forward in a way that is morally uncontroversial and can win the assent of all of the Americans or the large majority of them. And I think that if science and technology could provide us a technical solution for this moral and political impasse, it would be wonderful.

FLATOW: But there is research going on which has the implicit OK and majority of Americans in different states that have OK'd bond, you know, money--California, New York state, New Jersey, Massachusetts. These people have already voiced their opinions and said, `Yes, we do believe that embryonic stem cells should happen.' It sounds to me like you're looking for something that is so pleasing to everyone, which I have never in my career found something that's going to please everyone, there's never going to be any dissention here.

Dr. KASS: Well, look, two things. Federal funding is not just about money. Federal funding is the pronouncement of the national blessing on the activity being funded. And the federal government, both in the Clinton administration and in the Bush administration, has annually passed the Dickey-Wicker amendment saying federal funds may not be used for any research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed. President Clinton signed it four or five times; President Bush has signed it every year. That's the will of the Congress. And it's...

FLATOW: But that would include some of the cell lines that are already OK'd, would they not?

Dr. KASS: I beg your pardon?

FLATOW: Wouldn't that include some of these cell lines that the president said would be OK to use?

Dr. KASS: Well, this is a fairly technical discussion, but let me try quickly. The president's decision, as I understand it--and this was not my advice; I mean, the president--this was his decision made on his moral understanding of this--the cell lines that were in existence when he liberalized the policy for the first time, the destruction of the embryos had already taken place. And he had to figure out whether or not allowing funding for the existing stem lines, of which there are now 22 or 23 actually available and in use, whether that involved complicity in the dirty dead and was in violation of the Dickey amendment. And I think he reasoned that it was not, provided that one did not in the future incentivize or reward similar further destructive acts. And I think that remains his position to this point.

We do have, by the way--before that decision was made, scientists were asked, `How many human embryonic stem-cell lines do you think there are in the world?' They said 10, 15. They were astonished to discover that there might be this many.

FLATOW: But they're not usable. There are only 10 or 15 usable lines that...

Dr. KASS: No, I'm sorry. No, no--please. There are 22 lines that are available through the NIH.

FLATOW: NIH said 19. Zerhouni said 19.

Dr. KASS: Well, I haven't visited the Web site in the last few days, but there was up to 22...

FLATOW: But it certainly wasn't 63.

Dr. KASS: Sixty-three were eligible. There's a difference between eligible and available. To be available means you have to get material transfer agreement from the companies who've produced them.

FLATOW: Oh.

Dr. KASS: You've got to characterize them and purify them. Others might yet still come online. When asked at the beginning--Dr. Noble at the beginning said, `Look, from a single ball of cells we could get cells that would cure diseases.' Well, we've got 22 cell lines from 22 balls of cells.

FLATOW: But they're not usable, Dr. Kass.

Dr. KASS: I'm sorry, there's dispute about that.

FLATOW: Well, not if you talk to the researchers. There's no dispute--the feeder lines that were used make them unusable.

Dr. KASS: No, I'm sorry about that. If you look very closely, what's called contamination--we grow lots of things that wind up in the human body on animal cells, many vaccines and the like. The FDA is perfectly capable of doing tests on whatever products are eventually produced to find out if there really is animal contamination. And for the basic research--look, the cures are decades away. For the basic research that would enable us to find out how to control these cells, how to get them to differentiate reliably, how to do so without producing tumors, how to keep these populations growing homogeneously, we may have enough lines at least to do this basic research.

In addition--and I don't want to really argue about that. I want to say, look, the scientists tell us they need new lines, I say fine. Let's find ways of getting these new lines that are morally uncontroversial and of course have to be every bit as good as the original ones. And the council's white paper lists four possible approaches, of which the somatic cell reprogramming or differentiation in reverse is only one of four. Several of the other things can also be tried right now, and I know that the proposal, in fact, to try to extract stem cells from embryos that are not just unwanted but are actually already dead, analogous to removing organs from cadavers, the proponents of that--two physicians at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons are in the process of getting IRB approval to try to do that research straight away in humans. We might have an answer. And I think it would be absolutely marvelous if we can get not just pluripotent stem cells but pluripotent stem cells of known genetic composition out there quickly so the scientists can use it.

The alternative of going the route of cloning, which has been widely touted, is not just using the spare embryos in the freezers; it's creating embryos solely for the purposes of research. I think the majority of Americans have qualms about that, and I think it also brings the possibility of cloning to make children ever closer.

FLATOW: How do you know these figures about the majority of Americans?

Dr. KASS: Because on that, when the...

FLATOW: About all the issue--you brought up many times the majority of Americans. How do you know these...

Dr. KASS: There have been polls on this particular question: Do you think human life should be created for scientific research? When the president had that line in the State of the Union, Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the aisle got up and cheered.

FLATOW: Yeah, well, they all cheered about weapons of mass destruction also, but, you know...

Dr. KASS: Well...

FLATOW: As you said yourself at the beginning, there are ways of polls and there are ways of polls.

Dr. KASS: Well, let's put it this way. It would be...

FLATOW: Why don't we have a real--a survey, you know, conduct one that would satisfy everybody to find out?

Dr. KASS: I don't understand, Ira, why, if I tell you that there is a morally uncontroversial way of doing this, you shouldn't be interested in exploring it.

FLATOW: I am very interested in it, and we explore it almost every week here, but we haven't found any of the scientists who agree with you.

Dr. KASS: Well, on our own council, there was, I think, grave doubt about the merits of at least some of these proposals on the part of two of our five physicians and scientists. But Dr. Rowley, who's a colleague of mine here, also with the University of Chicago, thought that this fourth proposal, this reprogramming, the proposals should come in, and if they have scientific merit, the NIH should fund them. We've now, since this report is in, have had two very exciting developments, announced admittedly not yet in journals, but at scientific meetings of their peers with demonstrated slides and data. I think, you know, it's time to encourage this research.

FLATOW: I think you're right. Let's go to the phones. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get some--So you don't know, Dr. Kass, when this might be published, we might be able to get people to comment on it?

Dr. KASS: No, but I would maybe suggest you give Dr. Verlinsky here in Chicago a call and put him on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FLATOW: (Laughs) We'll have to do this. What is your opinion about--where do you think all this is going to wind up? You said you were an agnostic on this.

Dr. KASS: I'm an agnostic on the--I have no doubts that the early-stage human embryo is living and human. It's human, not mouse, and as long as it divides and develops under its own internal unfolding power, it is alive. Whether it has the moral--what its moral status is compared to other stages of human life, I do not know. I have my own intuition, but I don't have the confidence that people have who say they know it's a human baby or people who say they know it's not. There is no boundary, there is no obvious boundary between fertilization and talking, biologically speaking, where you could say, `Ah, humanity arrives here.'

And in the face of that biological fact and in the face of the grave significance of what we hold in our hands here, I think at the very least we should stand before this question with a certain modesty and a certain awe, and not do destructive activities unless it were absolutely necessary.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Cosmo in--is it Monticello, Utah?

COSMO (Caller): That is--Monticello is correct, sir.

FLATOW: You're on. Go ahead.

COSMO: Oh, thank you so much. Dr. Howard Kass, I want to congratulate you, sir, on all your conversation about what you're saying. I know that you claim to be agnostic, but you're really aligned with the pro-lifers, in which I happen to be. And I like your suggestions about Dr. Verlinsky's possibility of going into the stem cells, cloning and not destroying life in the other cells. And in that vein, I think it's a possibility of sparing the human stem cell and let it develop within the body as you explain. Technically, I couldn't repeat that. You're so efficient in doing that. But I just wanted to really congratulate you on your humanism towards another human being, and sparing that destruction of that possible human being of being a great tribute to the world if it was able to develop. And...

FLATOW: All right, Cosmo, thanks for calling.

COSMO: OK. You're welcome. You're welcome.

Dr. KASS: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking with Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

You know, years ago, people also, maybe yourself included, were against in vitro fertilization, and it's been well accepted now, has it not?

Dr. KASS: Sure. And as a general point of course some things get accepted and we get used to things we perhaps shouldn't get used to. But on this particular subject, I was an early critic of in vitro fertilization on several grounds. First, before it was even tried, I worried about whether it was in fact safe and was going to be inflicting harm on the child-to-be simply by technologies the safety of which we did not know, arguments that are now used by the National Academy itself about human cloning.

I also was concerned that once you get the beginnings of human life out in the laboratory, you start down a slippery slope that, my goodness, might lead you in the direction of cloning or growing human embryos for body parts or doing various other kinds of things. When Louise Brown was born, I wrote an endorsement of the use of in vitro fertilization for the overcoming of intramarital infertility, and I have many in vitro children in my own extended family, and it's a source of great joy to me. But I don't recant some of my concerns about where this might lead and what this was the first step to.

FLATOW: And let's say that the Koreans or someone else using embryonic stem-cell research comes up with a cure for diabetes or something else. Would it ethically, because it was done--way that people would not agree that it should be in the first place--is it ethical to withhold that treatment from people in the United States?

Dr. KASS: No.

FLATOW: Would it be...

Dr. KASS: I said no.

FLATOW: No, I hear. What if you had to go to South Korea to get the treatment?

Dr. KASS: Well, I give you a counterexample. The United States, by federal statute, bans the buying and selling of organs for transplantation, even though everybody now says that if you allowed markets in organs, you would increase the supply and you might even get better ones. People can, if they want, go to various countries where they have black markets in organs--in China, in India and the like. Does the fact that people can do this elsewhere mean we should change the law?

FLATOW: No. That's not where I was headed with this question. (Laughs)

Dr. KASS: Yeah.

FLATOW: No, I'm just saying, if you don't allow it to be imported into this country, then you'll create a system were only rich people who can afford to go to South Korea can get healthy.

Dr. KASS: Well, but that's the same analogy we have here. Look...

FLATOW: But you just said it would be immoral not to allow it to come into this country.

Dr. KASS: Well, I do not favor legislative bans of the sort that appeared in the anti-cloning bill that would criminalize the importation of the products. I think that we--by the way, the UN, in a fairly lopsided vote, called upon all the nations to ban precisely the work that the Koreans are doing. The Canadian legislation, which endorses embryonic stem-cell research with the spares, nonetheless has passed a national ban on the Korean research. There's a ban on all forms of human cloning in Canada. There is in Germany and in France, though Britain, Singapore, Israel allow it.

FLATOW: I think Great Britain can do therapeutic cloning.

Dr. KASS: That's what I was saying. Great Britain allows it...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KASS: ...as does Singapore and Israel.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KASS: We live in a complicated world here, and I don't think--look, the United States is and will remain the leader in biotechnology, and thank God for that. But we also ought to try to be the leader in the moral uses of these technologies. And it's very sad to me that we are one of the few nations of the world that has at the moment no national policy other than this kind of struggling over the funding question. We have not tried to put in place any kind of boundaries between what is permissible and impermissible in these new modes of reproduction. And the council has issued some recommendations; I hope they will be taken up.

FLATOW: Well, we have very few national policies that we need--energy would be another one.

I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us, Dr. Kass.

Dr. KASS: Ira, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: I appreciate it.

Dr. Leon Kass is a chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. Also, he's Addie Clark Harding professor in The College and Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

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I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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