March 1, 2024

Controversy over Obama appointments

NIH director and Surgeon-General both have religious backgrounds

Francis CollinsTwo more of President Obama’s appointment have created a stir amongst bioethicists.

His choice for head of the National Institutes of Health is Francis Collins, the distinguished geneticist who headed the Human Genome Project. It seems like a good choice. Collins has “a boy scout gene”, in the words of one journalist – a brilliant, successful, likable, knockabout guy who likes red Harleys.

Trouble is that Collins is also a born-again Christian who argued that religion and science are consistent in his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. He has even launched a website to harmonise “Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life.”  This has brought him under fire from some scientists and from some Christians. Both think, for different reasons, that he concedes too much.

Scientist-blogger P.Z. Myers, a virulent opponent of religion, says that Collins doesn’t understand evolution and that “His website, Biologos, is an embarrassment of poor reasoning and silly christian apologetics”. He may be a pleasant person, but he lacks intellectual integrity: “I’d rather have someone who can think like a scientist in charge than yet another Jebusite with an evangelical agenda.”

And in the web magazine Public Discourse, Justin D. Barnard questions whether Collins really believes that a human embryo is a human person. “Collins needs to come clean. Either he upholds the dignity of human life or he doesn’t. If he does, and he accepts the nomination to head the NIH, then it seems that he is deeply compromised as a professing evangelical Christian.”

Turning now to the post of Surgeon-General, the President has nominated Dr Regina Benjamin, a primary-care doctor from the small Alabama fishing village of Bayou La Batre. She is expected to promote preventative health care and delivering better service to the poor, minorities and rural areas. She has gained a national profile as a critic of government regulations that complicate doctors’ ability to treat poor and uninsured patients.

What gives some lobby groups the shivers is the possibility that she might oppose abortion. Her Alabama clinic does not do abortions and she is on the board of trustees of the Catholic Health Association. On the other hand, she has also been on the board of Physicians for Human Rights, which supports abortions. To put these suspicions to rest, a White House spokesman said that Dr Benjamin "supports the president’s position on reproductive health issues”.