America’s Moral Challenge

Scattershot, Vol 2, No 2: Winter 2004 | Published on

By Eric Cohen

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“It is in the issues of bioethics – embryo research, human cloning, drugs like Ritalin and Prozac – that modern society will be forced to confront its soul in a way. Whether these issues will become politically important or not is hard to say. Before Sept. 11, the defining political question in the country was stem cell research. Whether we’ll have another moment like that, where the country for months follows a bioethics issue and the President deliberates about it at a very high level, I’m not sure. I suspect we will, and I suspect it will happen after some kind of major technological advance, like the cloning of the first human child.

“In a way, the bioethics issues are even deeper than the abortion issue or at least potentially deeper, in that embryo research is a fruit we actively seek — people want the fruits of this research. And if it is successful, it will become a part of mainstream modern medicine. Abortion is something a large percentage of the people of this country will tolerate, but very few people see it as a fruit worth seeking. Most people see it as a tragic thing, even if they don’t think the government should make it illegal.

“Embryo research is much more complicated in that it both forces an ethical dilemma upon us – are we going to use nascent human life as a resource? At bottom, it forces us to confront what modern civilization is all about — the pursuit of health, and prosperity, and greater autonomy, and there is nothing less autonomous than getting sick. I think this moral self-reflection is what makes the bioethics issues so important. Will they become big campaign issues year-to-year – probably not. But if you want to understand what American civilization is and what it aspires to become, or should aspire to become, I think that bioethics is crucial.”

Click here to read the entirety of this interview with Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis and director of EPPC’s program on Biotechnology and American Democracy.