February 22, 2024

… and says a last long goodbye

Who was responsible for the Council’s diversity?

It is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness along the Potomac. The President’s Council for Bioethics used its last meeting to take stock of its achievements. Its distinguished chairman, Edmund Pellegrino, mused about what the job of a bioethics council should be under President Barack Obama. Should it be merely educational? Should it frame policy? Should it seek to achieve a consensus? Should it be more closely linked to other government bodies? Should there be a "Supreme Court of bioethics"? Should the Council’s philosophy be polychrome or monochrome, reflecting only the administration of the day?

Although the Council’s critics claimed that it had been packed with Bush stooges, its members saw it as diverse, even fractious. They even clashed in this meeting over who deserved to claim credit for the diversity – the odious president, or the erudite first chairman, Leon Kass. But Bush had certainly created a structure which encouraged diversity. The Council’s charter even stated that it was not obliged to reach a consensus on contentious issues.

Professor Robert George, of Princeton, pointed out that previous presidents had appointed councils which echoed his own approach. But "President Bush opted to appoint a Council that was truly diverse, not only in terms of disciplinary perspective and experience and background but also in terms of moral points of view. He appointed to the Council in full knowledge many people who disagreed with him about fundamental moral questions… He appointed people who voted for the other guy in the election in which he emerged as president."

A recent appointee, Dr John Schneider, congratulated the Council staff on its eloquent and informative reports, so different from the bricks produced by previous commissions. "The agony of reading these things, and one of the pleasures of reading the reports of this Council has been that they were written in English in a recognizable form."

Officially, the Council’s term runs to September 2009, but it is unlikely that it will last that long.