Double Helix: The Roger Clemens Question

High drama. Senator Henry Waxman pitches, future hall-of-famer Roger Clemens throws it back at ’im. Lawyers bristle, allegations soar. Made for TV.

Amid all the hoopla, it’s easy to miss the fact that these men and their slugfest are sitting directly on the back of big issues at the nexus of science, ethics, and religion. The science is steroids, human growth hormones, and human performance enhancements. The ethics are encapsulated—pardon the pun—in this question: should we enhance ourselves? The religion (with a small “r”) is baseball.
And then underneath it all: What does it mean to be human?

Mr. Clemens, and his many co-defendants in sports—Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al—are stuck in an ethical no-man’s land. On the one hand, society is telling them: ‘Win at all costs, get the endorsements, break the records, entertain us, and maybe every now and then we’ll test you for steroids.’ On the other, we’re warning that ‘Steroids are illegal, they can cause cancer, they’re killing our children, just do it naturally like they did when I was a kid.’

It’s a classic case of science zipping ahead of society’s ability to deal with the ethical issues science raises.

Google ‘steroids human growth hormone’ and what pops up? Dozens of ads for the best and cheapest sources of these chemicals. So what’s an elite athlete to do?

If you’re thinking the answer is simple: ‘Just don’t do it,’ you might be surprised. Let’s turn to the experts. National Public Radio just did a whole show full of experts asking ‘Should we accept steroids in sports?’ Heavy hitters on both sides weighed in (academic heavies in the field of bioethics and literal heavies like former Atlanta Braves slugger Dale Murphy). If anything, I’m actually more convinced by those answering ‘Yes.’ Their arguments—that performance enhancement has always been part of sports (and life), and that if steroids were out in the open, tested and regulated, things would be much better—speak more, in my mind, to the heart of the ethical question than those who say ‘No.’ Their arguments are more about the potential dangers of using steroids and how using them is cheating.

John Harris, in his new book Enhancing Evolution, even argues that we’re morally obligated to help people, to improve them, to make them better, if we have the technology. He says, inevitably, there is no real line between enhancement and therapy.

Michael Sandel counters, in The Case Against Perfection, that it is immoral to enhance ourselves; that the idea of health as something you can maximize is as dangerous as eugenics, á la the Nazis and early-20th century American human genetics. He says there is a clear line between enhancement and therapy.

Of course, these kinds of things only get worse (potentially) and more exciting (scientifically). Just this week, for example, some folks figured out what makes muscles tired (calcium channel leakage) and soon will test drugs to see if they help prevent heart attacks (hearts are, after all, just big muscles). But you can also imagine that people might want to use the same drugs for other activities.

I’m wondering if this no-man’s land we’ve created for ourselves—the one from which Clemens is talking this week—is typical of the natural evolution of society struggling with complex issues, society creating itself and its own ethics and laws. I’m wondering, too, especially given the speed of scientific discoveries, if leaders in science and religion need to take the lead here, meet at the pitcher’s mound and help advise the politicians and lawyers to establish new and different mechanisms for moving forward.