Science & Technology

Should "Moral Vertigo" Make Biotech Fall Over?

How disgust for the new rapidly turns to acceptance


Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, acknowledges that biotechnological breakthroughs may soon enable us "to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases."

However, Sandel—not merely a powerless pundit on these matters, but a member of the President's Council on Bioethics—quickly adds that the biotech revolution heralds awful dangers as well. It "may also enable us to manipulate our own nature—to enhance our muscles, memories, and moods; to choose the sex, height, and other genetic traits of our children; to make ourselves 'better than well.'" So, uh, what's that problem again? "When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today," Sandel frets, "men and women struggle to articulate their unease… The genomic revolution has induced a kind of moral vertigo."

Ah, "moral vertigo"—certainly more to be feared than cancer and birth defects and diabetes and any number of other conditions biotech holds the promise to abate or cure. Let's turn to the first refuge of scoundrels—polls—to see how contagious is Sandel's "moral vertigo"

According to a 2003 poll commissioned by the pro-biotech lobby group, the Coalition for Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), "more than two-thirds of Americans support therapeutic cloning research to produce stem cells for treating life-threatening diseases and conditions." However, keep in mind that a dueling poll commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) found that only 24 percent of Americans favored such research.

These differing results probably hinged on the fact that the CAMR poll question described stem cells as coming from fertilized human eggs and listed the benefits of the research. The NCCB poll, on the other hand, said that the cells came from live human embryos and listed arguments against the research. Polling—truly the mother's milk of social science.

Another poll, done by the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center, found that 74 percent of Americans favored pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) of embryos to avoid serious genetic diseases; 60 percent approved of PGD to avoid a tendency to diseases like cancer; and 59 percent supported even genetic engineering for the purpose of avoiding disease. When it came to using genetic techniques merely to enhance children, 22 percent approved of using PGD to ensure that a child has desirable characteristics; and 20 percent thought genetic engineering should be used to create desirable characteristics in children.

Delving further via Nexis, it turns out that there have been very few polls that asked Americans what they think about things like genetic enhancement. The one that biotech opponents and proponents both often mention is a Louis-Harris poll five years ago that was sponsored by the March of Dimes. In that poll "42 percent of potential parents surveyed said they would use genetic engineering on their children to make them smarter; 43 percent to upgrade them physically."

In a June 27, 1999, article on designer babies, the Houston Chronicle cited a poll which asked the ambiguous question: "Do you approve of scientists changing the makeup of human cells to reduce the risk of developing a fatal disease later in life?" In 1986, 77 percent of respondents answered yes. By 1996, the same question was asked again and 84 percent said yes. The question doesn't address genetically altering children merely for enhancement—making them "better than well." Nevertheless, the Chronicle article rendered the judgment that "as scientific advances bring closer the reality of genetically altered babies, Americans have become increasingly accepting of the idea."

As far as the most controversial biotech question goes—reproductive cloning, that is, cloning to make a baby—according to most of the polls I found, around 90 percent of Americans still oppose it (though the Johns Hopkins poll did find that 18 percent would approve).

But speculative polling on these matters is barely worth minding. After all, in 1969, a Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed that producing test-tube babies was "against God's will." Christiaan Barnard was condemned by many as a "butcher" when he transplanted the first heart into the chest of 55-year-old Louis Washkansky on December 3, 1967. The contraceptive pill introduced in 1960 was outlawed by many states until near the end of that decade. And much further back, Edward Jenner's 1796 discovery that inoculation with cowpox scabs would prevent people from getting smallpox was mocked by newspaper editorials and cartoons depicting men with cow's heads.

As history amply demonstrates, the public's immediate "yuck" reaction to new technologies is a very fallible and highly changeable guide to moral choices or biomedical policy. For example, by 1978, more than half of Americans said that they would use in vitro fertilization (IVF) if they were married and couldn't have babies any other way. More than 200,000 test-tube babies later, the majority of Americans now heartily approve of IVF. Globally nearly 50,000 heart transplants have been performed, and 83 percent of Americans favor organ donation. The contraceptive pill is legal in all states and millions of American families have used them to control their reproductive lives. And smallpox is the first human disease ever eradicated.

What the polling data and history clearly show is that as people's understanding of new technologies increases, most of them overcome their initial fears and end up welcoming new technological advances rather than rejecting them. It has happened before and, despite Sandel's case of moral vertigo, it will happen in this case too.