On Sunday morning, Dec. 12, near the end of his weekend-long stay as a scholar-in-residence at Sinai Temple, bioethicist Dr. Paul Root Wolpe was asked by Rabbi David Wolpe to give a few quick responses to some of the most challenging contemporary bioethical dilemmas.
“No,” Dr. Wolpe replied, provoking laughter from the nearly 300 people in attendance. “I can’t give quick responses; I’m a Wolpe.”
Dr. Wolpe is professor of bioethics and Jewish bioethics at Emory University as well as senior bioethicist for NASA and the first national bioethics adviser to Planned Parenthood of America. He had already delivered two talks to his brother’s congregation on Shabbat, so one highlight of Sunday’s breakfast was a picture-heavy PowerPoint presentation, which included quite a few photographs of genetically and otherwise engineered animals. He started with hybrids like the beefalo, the zorse (zebra-horse), the cama (camel-lama), the geep (sheep-goat) and, much to the delight of fans of “Napoleon Dynamite,” the liger (lion-tiger). Later, he showed pictures of mice, kittens, pigs, puppies and monkeys that, thanks to some genetic material from jellyfish and deep-sea coral, had been engineered to glow in the dark.
“The only reason to create a kitten that glows in the dark,” Dr. Wolpe said, “is to create a kitten that glows in the dark.” Rapid scientific advances like these raise ethical questions — which is, of course, is why the world needs bioethicists like Dr. Wolpe.
Despite his jocular demurral, the doctor eventually did offer a few concise observations on hot topics. Abortion: “No one has the right to tell me that my body has to be at the service of another body.” The degree to which health care is disproportionately allocated to the elderly: “We spend an enormous amount of money dying in this culture.” Embryonic stem cells: The way to infuriate scientists who advocate for the ethical use of embryonic stem cells is to ask them to name an experiment that would be too frivolous a use for such cells. “Should we use them to study male pattern baldness?” Dr. Wolpe asked, rhetorically.