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Wise companions for the new world of genetic engineering

A wide-ranging anthology of reflections on the meaning of humanity

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The ongoing debate over embryonic stem cell research pits its potential benefits for human health against potential changes in what it means to be human. To a certain degree, we've already started asking the right questions: Steroid use by athletes, for instance, forces us to consider whether we care if excellence is separated from effort. And today's mood-altering drugs can separate a sense of well-being from accomplishment. As a recent headline reminded us, "The Altered Human Is Already Here." Biotechnology is posing new questions more quickly than we might realize.

Those who advocate an unfettered future of better living through chemistry can make a strong case: Who wouldn't want not only freedom from suffering and disability, but enhanced mental and physical capacities, happier moods, sharper thinking, stronger bodies, longer lives? Who could ask for anything more?

But deeper issues roam just beyond The Land of the Obvious, and the two-year-old President's Council on Bioethics is charged with visiting them.

One of the council's most fascinating projects is a new book called "Being Human," a collection of essays, fiction, poetry, and philosophical and religious musings. Its contents range from the ancient "Epic of Gilgamesh," with its primal questions about mortality, to the screenplay for the futuristic movie "Gattica," which asks what role an imperfect "natural" man would play in a genetically enhanced society?

Definitions of bioethics often concern themselves with issues such as safety, fairness, and equal access to treatment. Thus, human cloning might be thought of simply in terms of whether it could safely produce a child free from defects.

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