The Puzzle of Leon Kass

Had you ventured to Washington, D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza Hotel one day last February for the second meeting of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, it might have struck you that the man in the chairman’s seat—the one governing this illustrious body that will lead the nation’s thinking on everything from cloning to euthanasia—seemed very unlike the person portrayed in many of the nation’s newspapers and magazines.

The afternoon’s topic happened to be cloning, perhaps the most controversial of the many issues the council will examine in the next two years. Leon Kass sat down, took a sip of water, twice adjusted his microphone, folded his hands on the papers before him, then opened the discussion with this announcement: The panel would first explore the merits of cloning.

The remark was startling, because it is well-known that Kass denounces not only reproductive cloning—creating genetically identical humans—but also creating stem-cell lines from fetal tissue, which holds possible promise for treating spinal cord injuries and diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Kass has written that the first robs humans of their humanity, while the second, often referred to as “therapeutic cloning,” promotes medical advancement at the cost of the weak and voiceless. For that reason, Kass’s appointment to lead this 18-member council—which will delve into the ethics of euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, genetic screening, gene therapy, psychoactive drugs, and brain implants, among other issues—came with plenty of criticism. According to some, Kass’s agenda may prevent him from governing the presidential panel with an even hand.

Others consider the 63-year-old University of Chicago professor an ideal pick for the chairman’s job. Kass can look at the delicate issues before the council through several lenses. His medical training, his stint as a surgeon for the Public Health Service, and his research for the National Institutes of Health help him appreciate how such issues bear on the world of medicine. His Harvard Ph.D. in biochemistry and a past position with the National Academy of Sciences allow him to empathize with fellow scientists. His renowned writing and teaching on bioethics—first at Georgetown University in the mid-1970s and now at the University of Chicago—establish him as one of the nation’s foremost thinkers on the moral and ethical issues arising with recent advances in medicine and science. His byline is frequently seen in the New Republic, the American Scholar, Public Interest, and First Things.

“I consider him a first-rate scholar and one of the really prominent people in the field,” says Edmund Pellegrino, a Georgetown professor of medicine and medical ethics. “He’s very fair-minded. On the other hand, he’s a person who forms his own opinion and stands by it.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb, a historian who writes about many of the issues that interest Kass, agrees: “Obviously, he has a point of view, which he expresses very well. But he also is wonderfully open-minded. He’s quite a brilliant teacher because he can receive different points of view and respect them and integrate them with his own.”

Clearly, Kass’s writings and speeches establish him as a conservative in the classic sense. The man in the chairman’s seat that February afternoon is as much noted for his writings on the Bible, Aristotle, and social mores as he is for his thoughts on the ethical questions that accompany advances in medical technology. Some even say Kass’s views cast him on the fringe of medical, scientific, and social consensus: He has questioned the use of cadavers for medical research and teaching, drugs designed to alter brain chemistry, and medicine’s efforts to prolong life. Kass has spoken against affirmative action and complained that women in their 20s are putting off having children as they build careers. He has written that the concept of safe, promiscuous sex is delusional, because even if contraception can prevent venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies, promiscuity remains dangerous spiritually and culturally: “Sexuality itself means mortality—equally for both man and woman,’ Kass has written. “Whether we know it or not, when we are sexually [promiscuous], we are voting with our genitalia for our own demise. ‘Safe sex’ is the self-delusion of shallow souls.” He has also criticized society’s turn toward feminism, gay rights, divorce, single parenthood, sex outside marriage, and children born outside marriage.

In addition to his opposition to cloning and stem-cell research, Kass opposes abortion and euthanasia, noting that doctor-assisted suicides exacerbate “the worst tendencies of modern life.” He once objected to in vitro fertilization, but in 1979 he said that he saw no harm in the procedure for infertile married couples. Some of his critics wonder at this transformation. Kass explained that the procedure has since proven relatively safe for women and their children.

“Nobody knew in advance that in vitro fertilization would be, by and large, safe,’ Kass says. “It’s not that I think the activity is absolutely innocent [in moral terms], but on balance, one could justify its use for infertile couples. And having known some such children myself, one is simply delighted they are here.”

Kass is indeed highly opinionated and unlikely to be swayed from his views, but he earns high marks from associates for his open-minded approach to the stickiest moral questions. These people point out that some of Kass’s views on issues dear to conservatives tend to be more moderate than conservatives might like: Kass is not interested, for example, in pushing for bans on legal abortion. He was lukewarm about the Church’s effort two years ago to promote legislation that would have prevented doctors in Oregon from prescribing federally controlled drugs for assisted suicides. And he doesn’t describe early-stage embryos as “people,” as most pro-life advocates do.

“If pushed to the wall, he would say it’s a human organism that has some claim on our respect,’ says Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “But he would not say this is a full person.”

A Stacked Bench?
The most common critique of the Council on Bioethics is that, no matter how diverse the views of the scientists, academics, and ethicists on the panel, Kass’s views will prevail when it comes time to advise Bush. The council’s first meeting might have confirmed these misgivings. Days before the gathering, the chairman gave his colleagues a reading assignment: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” a tale about a scientist who obsesses over the tiny mole on his wife’s cheek, creates a potion to erase it, and instead kills his spouse.

“Nobody should operate under the assumption that this…council is as open to all views as maybe an advisory commission should be,” says Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Society for Reproductive Medicine, whose 8,500 doctor-members run the nation’s fertility clinics. The society opposes human reproductive cloning but supports cloning for research purposes.

But Pellegrino thinks this criticism is unfair: “Any other credible person who would be appointed would have views on these issues. [Kass speaks] with very careful consideration and a moderate tone. He’s very willing to listen and evaluate ideas, suppositions, and presuppositions, whether they agree with his [own thinking] or not.”

Another concern is the council’s lack of any representative to speak for the patients who might benefit from research on human embryos.

“We’re talking about the development of treatments and cures that would help people with diseases,” argues Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology, which represents 10,000 biologists who generally support therapeutic cloning. “I think their voices should be heard.”

Wilson, whose society has one of its own—biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn—on Kass’s council, notes that when it came time for members of the public to speak before the council at its first meeting last January, most council members had already left.

“Mr. Kass said he wants to be open to dialogue and all that, and I hope that is true,” Wilson says. “But I don’t necessarily see a lot that proves it is true.”

But Kass’s supporters see no benefit in having patient advocates on board.

“I don’t know offhand what patients would bring to it,” notes Robert Bork, who works with Kass at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank. “They could say they’re suffering, but I doubt they’d have the background or expertise” to contribute to the debate, he says.

As for Kass, he doesn’t believe he’s obliged to hand the president a consensus on cloning or any other issue. Instead, he expects to present Bush with the prevailing opinions from the council and to elevate public knowledge about the ethics of cloning and other matters.

“Contrary to what many people said at the beginning—that this was a stacked panel and all you had were rabid, right-wing Republicans bordering on the Taliban—this is a diverse group of people,” Kass observes. “You have serious scientists whose major goal is the attainment of knowledge that might be humanly beneficial, and you have serious moralists whose major concern is that the weakest among us not be sacrificed even for the greater good.

“My job here is not to see that my view prevails. My job here is to see to it that we provide the president with the richest possible consideration, so that he knows what is at stake in whatever decision he makes.”

In this respect, Kass is approaching the chairman’s job much the way he has approached bioethics throughout his entire career: He tends to view a topic less in terms of the immediate public policy question and more in terms of the ramifications for the future of science, medicine, and humanity.

“He is a very deep thinker of a kind that you do not usually see in Washington,” Doerflinger says. “He goes beyond individual issues to talk about how they relate to human dignity and the human condition.”

Kass expects to give Bush the council’s report on cloning this summer. The panel will then move on to other issues.

Those who embrace cloning for human reproduction are a distinct minority, but opinions are far more diverse about whether it should be used to advance medical research. The National Academy of Sciences has issued a report urging that any attempt to clone a human being be banned because it poses a high risk of injury or death to the clone and to the woman who carries it. But it supports disease research involving the cloning of human embryonic cells. The predecessor to Kass’s panel—a national bioethics commission that operated under President Bill Clinton—made similar recommendations in 1997.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a sweeping ban on cloning for any purpose, including research. The Democrat-controlled Senate must now decide whether to embrace the House version or craft a more limited ban that would focus on preventing the implantation, gestation, and birth of a cloned baby.

As for Kass, his position on the subject closely follows that of the Church: He writes from a natural-law perspective, which rejects research involving the loss of human life, even if its purpose is to alleviate suffering. He would ban therapeutic cloning on the grounds that once scientists have carried out the mechanics necessary to clone, they will have given the world all the ingredients for reproducing a human being.

“My concern is that once you put human life in human hands, you have started on a slippery slope that knows no boundaries,” Kass argues. “The fact that we have started down this road [of] having life in human hands outside the human body seems to me to be crossing a kind of moral boundary that will lead to places most people won’t want to go.”

One of Kass’s first writings on bioethics was in the late 1960s. While still a young student at the University of Chicago—he entered college at age 15—he read a newspaper commentary by eminent scientist Joshua Lederberg. Scientists had just cloned tadpoles, and Lederberg was speculating about the possibility of human cloning. Kass was appalled by the notion and wrote a critical letter to the editor. In subsequent years—as he completed his biology and medical degrees at Chicago, then his biochemistry Ph.D. at Harvard—Kass saw many of the ethical dilemmas that were arising from bold new laboratory procedures. He raised concerns about the emergence of organ transplants, which he considered “fancy medical technology that wasn’t going to benefit a lot of people and [would] lead to a trade in human spare parts,” says Harvey Flaumenhaft, a classmate of Kass in college and now dean of St. John’s College. Later, Kass raised objections to in vitro fertilization and to fetal research. When scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep, Kass began an inquiry into the ethical consequences. In 1996, he testified before Congress against doctor-assisted suicides, an issue he had written about for years.

Some say Kass grew discouraged by his inability to influence public policy on these matters. To some extent, he also gave up trying to argue against legalized abortion. “I think he felt the secular culture was going in a direction he could not prevent by himself,” Doerflinger says. “He’s been a bit of a fatalist on public advocacy because…he didn’t see that he was doing a great deal of good. So he devoted himself to just trying to do good work academically and trying to get some of his students thinking clearly on the issues.”

“There have been times when I’ve sort of pulled out of [the public and political arenas] because it seemed to me that bioethics questions were going to be largely influenced by cultural questions,” Kass concedes.

“It’s very hard to make arguments about the effects of cloning on family relations if family relations are in tatters.

If you don’t really see that there might be some wisdom in the bond between sexual procreation, erotic love, and marriage, then certain kinds of arguments about the dangers of manufacturing children just won’t register.”

Last year, however, when a company called Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, announced that it had successfully cloned embryos for research, Kass saw a chance to make a strong case against the practice before it became acceptable in the public mind. On Capitol Hill, Kass testified against cloning and lobbied for a comprehensive ban on the practice, which the House of Representatives recently passed.

“I do believe that the decision about human cloning represents an opportunity for us to decide whether we are going to be the victims of a kind of technological determinism—in which what can be done will be done—or whether we will try to shape the direction in which these new technologies will go,” Kass says. “This would be a major step down the road to the Brave New World. The public is, by and large, against it. Yet there are certain cowboys out there who threaten to do this for the sheer pleasure of being the first to do it.”

Kass’s advocacy on the Hill caught the attention of the White House, and an invitation soon followed: Would Kass meet with the president to discuss his views on research using stem cells, which, because of their ability to replicate all the body’s tissues, are believed to hold promise for treating several debilitating diseases?

Bush’s dilemma was political as well as moral: How could he satisfy conservatives without seeming heartless toward those whose diseases might be cured or treated through advances in stem-cell research? Ultimately, Bush struck a compromise, allowing continued research on cell lines already taken from discarded human embryos but banning the destruction of more embryos for experimental purposes. While Kass has called stem-cell research a “deeply vexing and serious moral question,” he reportedly embraced Bush’s decision as a workable solution to the current dilemma.

“This is not like the war against terror, where it is a fairly clear case of battles against evil,” Kass notes. “Here we are confronting a situation where there are competing goods and the question is how to make sure that everyone who has to make a decision knows what these goods are.”

Kass’s appointment to the bioethics commission followed shortly after the president’s statement about stem-cell research. In general, Kass avoids television and newspaper interviews because he objects to “being forced to reduce my thoughts to sound bites.” He still remembers when former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm—in a now-notorious speech—took one of Kass’s writings out of context and suggested that senior citizens had a duty to die and make way for new generations. Kass was flooded with calls from journalists. Today, he refuses to speak to reporters unless they agree to tell him which of his quotes they plan to use.

“I don’t want to be placed at the end of the teeter-totter against some person with a more liberal voice so the journalists can look like they’re doing their balancing,” he says.

Religious Values
Kass was raised on the south side of Chicago by parents who ran a clothing store and embraced socialist values. Yiddish culture and language were emphasized at home; religion was not.

Over the years, Kass retained that strong social conscience and concern for the underdog. He also began studying traditional religions and wrote extensively about the Bible. Today, Kass adheres to a conservative, though not strictly orthodox, Judaism. He attends synagogue and fasts on Yom Kippur.

“The things he valued in secular Yiddish culture—concern for the poor, for character, for family values—have roots in religion and spirituality,” Flaumenhaft says. “One would not now think of him as a socialist, but many of his concerns about science, medicine, and technology stem from his concern for those who are not the elite.”

When Kass walks, he leads with his chest—his shoulders set back, his arms behind him. A single, gleaming line of silver runs along his brow and highlights his black-gray hair, parted far to the left of his scalp. His glasses turn up slightly at the corners, giving him a bookish appearance.

But while Kass’s friends say he’s a serious man, they insist he’s by no means glum or reclusive. Kass is a great storyteller and loves to collect jokes, which he often transforms into a Yiddish dialect humor. He and his wife of 40 years, Amy, are avid birdwatchers whose vacations have included trips to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. They have two daughters and three grandchildren.

“There are really two sides of him that it’s hard for people to grasp,” says Daniel Callahan, a director of the Hastings Center who persuaded Kass to join the center’s team when it began delving into bioethics in the late 1960s. “He’s got a lot of very firm, hard views…on a lot of things, and if he were given his head, he might have a lot of bans and tough regulations. On the other hand, there’s this teaching side that is very good about talking about the issues.

People who totally disagree with him find him a wonderful person to dialogue with.” These two very different aspects of Kass’s personality were on vivid display at February’s council meeting. On the one hand, Kass was at pains to let his 17 colleagues have their say. On the other, he frequently seemed impatient to interject a thought as other council members were speaking.

Council members agreed that the use of cloning “for baby-making,” as Kass put it, was undesirable. But just how undesirable depended on the member. One council member called it “a degradation,” arguing that such artificial reproduction robs a child of the “lineage of affection” that naturally born children experience with their parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Another tempered that view by noting that, to some degree, adopted children are also robbed of this experience and that it might be more prudent to find other ways to explain the council’s objections.

Kass, who clearly had a thing or two to say about the subject, opened his mouth three times to interject a thought—and three times checked himself, choosing instead to take copious notes and acknowledge his colleagues’ remarks with quick nods. As he listened, one hand went to his hip and the other to his chin, and when he finally did open his mouth to speak, it was with the grace and equilibrium of a diplomat: “That might be the way we go,” he said, “but let’s work on it.”

“Leon has been thinking about human cloning longer and deeper than anybody else in that room,” Doerflinger notes. “That may be part of the impatience. These people are saying things that he thought through and realized the flaws in years ago. But as chairman of a bioethics council, you have to let other people have their say.”

This is the Kass who has learned, from years of university teaching, how to keep his own strong views from closing off a discussion. The Kass who is determined to win the argument waits his turn.


  • Dana Wilkie

    At the time this article was published, Dana Wilkie was a Washington correspondent covering national politics and government for Copley News Service.

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