March 5, 2024

Bitter bioethicists link hands with angry scientists

Arthur Caplan

US celebrity bioethicist Arthur Caplan has orchestrated a biting open letter to President George Bush after he sacked two supporters of therapeutic cloning from his Council on Bioethics. Caplan complains that the credibility of the Council has been “severely compromised” by reducing the diversity of ethical viewpoints. About 170 scientists and bioethicists signed the letter, including such prominent figures as the Australian philosopher Peter Singer and Ruth Macklin.

The letter may signal a trend towards political activism amongst American bioethicists. Coincidentally, Dr Caplan’s letter appeared on the website of the American Journal of Bioethics (he is a board member) under an article calling upon the profession to act as “public intellectuals” who “play a prominent role in shaping public opinion on a variety of topics” by using the media skilfully.

The American Society for Cell Biology also denounced the sacking of its former president, Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian, calling it a “Friday afternoon massacre”. Dr Blackburn attributed her departure to bias. “Holding science hostage to ideology, that’s what it looks like to me,” she said.

The chairman of the bioethics council, Dr Leon Kass, denied that his council was being stacked to rubberstamp the views of President George Bush. Such charges were “malicious and false”, he said. His explanation was that the council was shifting its focus from reproductive technology to issues of neuroscience, brain and behaviour. The new appointees reflected the need for different expertise, he said