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Leon Kass: The ethics cop

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Conservatives were heartened last week when President Bush appointed Dr. Leon Kass, an eminent University of Chicago bioethicist, to head an advisory panel on stem-cell research. Kass's visibility was already on the rise. He'd been morphing from political thinker to political player, largely because of his passionate opposition to human cloning. He has written two widely read articles on the topic for the New Republic and testified persuasively before Congress. In July he attended a crucial meeting at which Bush moved toward his decision to allow only limited federal funding of stem-cell research.

While Kass has made his views against cloning well known--simply put, he believes it robs us of our humanity--he has been more opaque on the issue of stem cells. "I regard it as a deeply vexing and serious moral question," he told the New York Times. Daniel Callahan, a colleague who attended the July Oval Office meeting, says he does not recall Kass's coming down one way or the other. "He seemed somewhat ambivalent on the topic," says Callahan. In one of his anticloning articles, however, Kass appears to oppose embryonic research in general. "By pouring our resources into adult stem-cell research," he writes, "...we can avoid the morally and legally vexing issues in embryo research."

Kass, 62, has taught for 25 years at the University of Chicago, where he earned his medical degree. Now he will be scrutinized by a much larger audience. He knows that if he stacks his panel with stem-cell opponents, it will be too easily dismissed; if he brings in a broad range of views, he may have trouble reaching a consensus. But Kass believes consensus is overrated. He prefers the prickly, the individual, the brilliant. It will be great fun to watch him work in Washington.



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Cover Date: August 20, 2001

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