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At the edge of ethics

J. Peder Zane

Julian Savulescu is the bad boy of bioethics. Find the most controversial position on a burning social issue, and you'll know where the Oxford professor stands.

In his recent lecture at Duke University, Savulescu argued that parents should have the right to terminate a pregnancy at any time, for any reason _ including gender selection. Parents also should be able to manipulate their offsprings' genes, he says, to bolster intelligence, height or other traits.

Savulescu favors cloning, and doping in sports. He thinks people should be able to use any relatively safe drug, genetic or biological therapy to make themselves smarter, stronger, happier _ better.

"In the 20th century, medicine focused on the treatment and prevention of disease," he told about 60 people at Duke's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. "In the 21st century, we will see the enhancement of healthy people's lives through medicine that changes our biology."

Savulescu, an Australian-born scientist who is director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, noted that the eradication of all disease would add 12 years to the average American's life span. Cutting-edge technologies might allow us to live to 120 and help us to enjoy those years more fully.

Well, not us, exactly. Savulescu conceded that many of the eye-popping techniques he described are still in the early stages of development. Scientists, for example, have already created a genetically modified mouse that can run for six hours (a standard mouse tires after 20 minutes). But the prospect of indefatigable humans is a long way off.

In about 10 years, however, we should be able to sequence anyone's genome for about $400. This would allow parents to screen a pool of embryos, deciding which one they want to become their child based on its genetic characteristics.

The decisions we make on how _ and if _ we should pursue these lines of research may shape future generations. In an address titled "The Moral Imperative to Enhance Human Beings," Savulescu advanced several arguments in support of them.

He began by rejecting the idea that these interventions represent a radical new effort to tamper with the natural order. They are effective new tools in humans' long-standing effort to remake ourselves and the world around us.

In the distant past, people improved their lives by controlling nature: They cultivated crops, built roads and dams. These efforts radically altered human existence, as we no longer had to spend our waking days hunting and gathering food. They freed us to develop new pursuits, such as art or politics.

As they developed civilizations, people manipulated the social environment through customs, laws and institutions that regulated human conduct. More recently, he said, we have created tools for changing our psychology, from psychoanalysis to Prozac.

Almost no one, Savulescu argued, quarrels with these efforts that have profoundly reshaped human behavior. The emerging biological interventions are just the next step in this long process of control.

Returning to the present day, Savulescu highlighted common ways we reshuffle the cards nature has dealt us.

We try to improve our health through better diets, our minds through better education. We combat the natural course of disease through medicine. We try to improve looks through cosmetic surgery, enhance mood through alcohol and other drugs, overcome the normal effects of aging on our sex lives through Viagra.

He noted a recent poll published by the science journal Nature that found that one in five academics queried said they use Adderall, Ritalin or some other drug to enhance brainpower. If we happily embrace these efforts, he asked, why not others?

Savulescu proposed a thought experiment: Imagine a child who could only maintain his above-average IQ of 116 by taking a vitamin every day. Wouldn't we find fault, he asked, with a parent who failed to give him the supplement? Then he asked audience members to consider a child whose native IQ of 100 could be raised to 116 by taking a pill? Wouldn't it be just as wrong, he asked, to deny him this life-enhancing medicine?

For Savulescu, the moral argument boils down to a question of safety. As long as the proposed interventions are not harmful, they should not be blocked.

In an interview after his talk, Savulescu said, "The place to start with any ethical question is whether the idea will maximize people's well-being."

He argued that liberty should be another guiding principle. "I understand that many people oppose these things because they think they are tampering with God's work," he said. "They are entitled to that view, but that should not give them the right to impose their beliefs on others."

Savulescu acknowledged that he will probably not sway those whose religious beliefs make them disagree with him. "As I make my case about happiness and freedom, I hope I can encourage everyone to start thinking deeply and clearly about these issues, to see them as they truly are."

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ABOUT THE WRITER

J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at peder.zane@newsobserver.com.

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(c) 2008, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

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