April 21, 2024

Obama disbands bioethics council

Sudden but expected

The US President’s Council on Bioethics has been disbanded. Members were told
last week that their services were no longer needed and that a planned meeting
should be cancelled. A White House press officer told the New York Times
that the Administration needs an advisory group which offers "practical policy
options" and that the Bush-appointed council had been "a philosophically leaning
advisory group".

The move was hardly unexpected. Apart from wanting to distance himself from
the previous president, President Obama knows that fixing America’s ailing
health system will be a huge challenge. He probably wants bioethics advisors who
will buttress his economic and political strategies rather than debate
apparently remote ethical questions.

Dr Alta Charo, a progressive ethicist at the University of Wisconsin who
worked on Obama’s transition team, told the New
York Times
that much of the Bush council’s work "seemed more like a public
debating society" and that a new commission should focus on helping the
government form ethically defensible policy. This would let "the president react
judiciously to rapid and often startling changes in the scientific landscape."
David Prentice, of the Family Research Council, agreed, but his more concise job
description was "a rubber stamp".

Bush’s bioethics council was first headed by Leon Kass of the University of
Chicago and, since 2005, by Edmund Pellegrino of Georgetown University. Both
opposed embryonic stem cell research which became the litmus test for the
politics of bioethics during the Bush years. The council itself was fairly
evenly balanced between "progressives" and "conservatives" on nearly every
issue. What distinguished it was its moral seriousness. Surprisingly, President
Bush allowed it to define issues and solutions without delivering politically
supportive outcomes.

In March 10 of the 18-member council also took the politically suicidal step
of questioning
his policy
on embryonic stem cell research. Dr Pellegrino, though not a
signatory, added a footnote: "Ethically, I cannot support any policy permitting
deliberate production and/or destruction of a human fetus or embryo for any
purpose, scientific or therapeutic." This candour no doubt hastened the demise
of the old council.

For the flavour of bioethics under Obama, consult the Center for
American Progress
, a Democrat think-tank and Obama brains trust. One of its
senior fellows, Jonathan
, of the University of Pennsylvania, was in charge of reviewing the
bioethics council on Obama’s transition team. He could play a major role in
whatever body replaces it. ~ New
York Times, June 17